Blood and guts

Executive Editor Jim Montague notes that taking a closer look at biological processes can help adapt or improve existing process controls and systems. Read why in this month's installment of Control Report.

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Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I recently overheard a process control engineer excuse himself to go to the bathroom by saying to a colleague, “Well, time to go lower the tank level.” And, like any good joke, I’ve reused it to seek an occasional chuckle. Anything to “break that face,” as Jerry Seinfeld says about his father in his SeinLanguage book.   

Of course, there’s an endless supply of synonyms for urination, not to mention the trouble caused by all our other bodily functions. They have so many nicknames and are the source of so much preoccupation, embarrassment and amusement because, if they aren’t “top of mind” now, they will be shortly—especially after a few cups if coffee. Got to go? I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Anyway, it’s rare for one of these labels to be more than just that—a simple euphemism. However, the engineer referring to his bladder as a storage tank was one of these exceptions. It sparked my imagination, and I quickly reasoned that all human, animal and plant biology is just an intricate, often-tiny series of process-control applications. All the classic elements are there. Flow, temperature, pressure and, of course, level are replicated in every biological process. Sensors, I/O points, wiring, flowmeters, transceivers, PLCs, SCADA systems, HMIs and software all have biological counterparts.

Besides our always-on alimentary canals, every skinned knee, stuffy nose or fever demonstrates flow, pressure and temperature. Even the classic science-fiction movie of Harry Kleiner’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) is now 40 years old. Remember Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasance and their cool little Proteus submarine/spaceship being shrunk and injected into that scientist’s body, so they could travel through his heart valves, lungs and inner ear to laser a blood clot in his brain? I’d never envied antibodies before, but I certainly did after seeing a bunch pursue and adhere to Ms. Welch. More biology.

Sure, it may be based successively on chemistry, physics and mathematics, but try to think of something that isn’t immersed in biology. In fact, the most basic needs of survival, sustenance, shelter and convenience drove the invention and development of the process-control field in the first place. Biology rules everything.      

Much of this metaphor is obvious, of course, but it’s useful because it suggests that taking a closer look at biological processes can help adapt or improve existing process controls and systems. And, as available biological examples grow increasingly sophisticated, this simple analogy may fuel more and better ideas on the process-control side.

     FIGURE 1: CAPILLARY ACTION
BodyWorlds Exhibit

The arteries in a hand at the BodyWorlds exhibit show incredible details.

For example, I’ve long known that it takes seven miles of capillaries to keep one pound of fatty tissue alive. (I personally have enough extra capillaries to reach from Chicago to New York.) However, this statistic came alive when I visited Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ BodyWorlds exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. The exhibit’s real bodies and parts undergo a “plastination” process that replaces tissue with plastic and reveals astounding levels of detail. Tiny red arteries branch into fluffy clouds of capillaries (See Figure 1), and suddenly it makes a lot more sense that I’m short of breath so often. I’m basically trying to run a continent-sized refinery, water-treatment plant or other process application with one big pump and Cheetos stacked up in all the lines. Very smart. If my heart had feet, it would kick my butt.

Consequently, even as I ride my Schwinn Airdyne bike and eat rabbit food to clean my own lines, I remember that arteries have the many of the same backflow preventers as industrial pipes. So, I think maybe studying capillaries’ elastic properties and epithelial cells may suggest some new flow-conditioning methods.

Likewise, low-voltage swapping across nerve-cell sheathes and neurons’ interactions with receptors and ganglia at either end are the basis for nervous system communications, and so they too might suggest better models for process-control networking. For example, artificial neural network (ANN) models and fuzzy logic software have long sought to mimic and benefit from biologically based decision making. Self-healing mesh networks already reroute data packets around obstacles, much like phone-switching protocols and neurological pathways.  

Because it functions at every size from the visible to the microscopic to the molecular, biology also may be the key to developing and implementing many future nanotechnologies.

Though engineering, medicine and many other jobs require ever-greater degrees of specialization, it’s crucial to explore some other sciences besides those we know best. Excuse me. I have to see a man about an actuator, I mean, a dog.

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