Pivoting to Ventilators: Q&A with Kash Behdinan, President of Pointfar Automation (Part 1)

COVID-19 has created an unprecedented global need for ventilator machines. As medical suppliers scramble to prevent shortages, other companies are stepping in to do what they can. Automation professionals around the world are going above and beyond to help fight the spread of COVID-19. The International Society of Automation (ISA) plans to feature some of those outstanding people and projects on our blog. 

Pointfar Automation recently announced that they have designed a digital twin model for manufacturing ventilators. They are making this software available for free to any companies interested in doing so. We sat down with Pointfar's president, Kash Behdinan, to learn more about these efforts. 

Behdinan is past director of the Process Management and Control Division of the ISA, past co-chair of the ISA Montreal Symposium, and 2017 program chair for the Process Control and Safety Symposium (now called the Process Industry Conference), as well as chair of the 61st International Instrumentation Symposium. He is an adjunct professor California State University Northridge, where he teaches in the department of manufacturing systems engineering and management, the mechanical engineering department, and the systems and operations management department. Behdinan received his PhD in manufacturing engineering from the University of Southern California. 

ISA: Hi, Kash. Thank you very much for sitting down to talk with me. Perhaps we can get started with an overview of what your company is doing in terms of manufacturing ventilators, and why it's so important right now.

Kash Behdinan: Of course. So, as we know, we are in a drastic situation. We are running short on ventilators, and new companies are starting to build them, but building ventilators is not an easy task. You need to have a complete model of the human body in the physical system, and also, you need to be able to test and validate your ventilators. Some companies out there, such as Medtronic, have now made the design of their ventilators public. Companies like Ford and Tesla are going to go by it to build their ventilators.

What we're trying to do now is help these companies as much as we can. They're car companies. They have no knowledge of the human body and the modeling simulation. So we just tried to get our systems to be able to test ventilators. Engineers can't work on the site, but they can work remotely, and they can start to validate their models and make sure that the systems are functional. 

Our company has been strong in digitalization, digital twin technology, and virtual commissioning. We mimic the full production line. We create a model, and we create a model of processes. As you know, any mechanical system will be controlling some sort of a PLC and some sort of touch interface. Ventilators also have some mechanical partsthey have sensors, some valves, some pressure control systems. They have some flow control and also volume control, and they have to match the body and the requirements of the systems that we actually work. We're trying to make sure that when we actually build ventilators, we know that they're fully working in a simulation area. All the digital switches, all the flows on the volume, everything can be simulated exactly as it works in the real machine, so it can be processed and evaluated.

Our company also partners with Dassault Systèmes, one of the strongest leaders in providing a platform for system integration design, 3D designs, and simulation. We have leveraged their platform, which is based on Modelica, a simulation language. It also has the capability to integrate with real PLCs, so we can use its environment and technically create a digital twin. That digital twin can be connected directly to a physical system as a physical controller.

Let's say you are a programmer trying to write a logic that controls a machine—in this case, a ventilator. You don't have that ventilator, and you can't wait, because there is a shortage of time before you have to push it to production. Instead of building the real ventilator, you can create a digital model, with everything working exactly as it would in a real environment.

ISA: Wow. When you take a step back and consider all that's possible in the modern world, it's amazing how far we've come in such a short time. 

KB: This is the future. You'll find there aren't a lot of companies in this area, because it requires comprehensive knowledge across many fields. I'm a PhD in manufacturing engineering, so I know electronics; I know manufacturing. My wife, Nooshin Jahangiri, is a physician, so I got a lot of information about how the human body works from her. Lungs are basically muscles forcing air in and out. They're a mechanical system. Of course, researchers in some industries go deeper, and I give credit to those who actually model the lung.  

So we created a ventilator system. We have the ventilator design mechanical system and the log model, and we interface those. Instead of having actual sensors, valves, and an electrical system for temperature control and volume control, everything is controlled in the simulation. You can send it variables, like a different pulse for air, for example, and you can see that the log is going to resist, so you increase the pressure.

There's a logic behind the ventilator, trying to mimic the lung. It starts pushing air into the lungs just by controlling volume and pressure. The volume and pressure have to be controlled precisely. You don't want to over-pressurize because you don't want to damage the tissues in the lungs. You don't want to under-pressurize, either—then you don't have enough oxygen. It's altogether just a very complicated device.

In this case, digital twin technology is the most viable solution because you can finally fully test your system. You can't put a ventilator with a human and say with 100 percent confidence that it is going to work—because what if it doesn't? Everything has to be tested in different scenarios: the maximum and minimum withholding pressure, the normal capabilities. The digital platform will help out with all of this. In a simulation model, you can change the route, you can change the size to get adjusted pressure; it doesn't hurt anyone. Equipment is pretty much free, and you don't have to wait for a valve to arrive or for a sensor to be found. Nowadays, engineers need a way to do their engineering work at home without even accessing the machine—and this is it. This is the future.

We've divided this interview into two parts; in the next part, we'll discuss how the Pointfar ventilator digital twin model works. Stay tuned!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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