With COVID-19, businesses big and small have had to rethink their immediate and long-term goals. Advanced Test and Automation Inc. (ATA) has not only pivoted its approach, processes, and manufacturing, but has done it with the briefest of notice.
Based in Milton, Ontario, ATA has a well-earned reputation for its turnkey solutions to accurately quantifying “physical characteristics: speed, torque, pressure, flow, force, voltage, current and more,” according to the company.
Active for years in transportation sectors – automotive in particular – ATA’s expertise in monitoring and manipulating flows has led it to explore other industries – industrial, pharmaceutical, and chemical. ATA has also been active in consumer packaged goods, and most recently, life-saving medical devices.
Once the seriousness of the Coronavirus was realized earlier this year, demand for ventilators skyrocketed, and these machines that helped people breathe were in short supply.
Many Canadian companies stepped up, notably StarFish Medical, the nation’s largest designer, developer and contract manufacturer of medical devices. Partnering with StarFish, ATA played a key role, validating and testing the CEV Winnipeg Ventilator and delivering the pneumatics subassembly of the product during the worst health crisis in decades.
ATA had become aware of StarFish through Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), which helped provide funding for the ventilator’s development in partnership with StarFish. The connection resulted in accelerated testing, and a shift into the new direction – for ATA – of medical devices.
“The onset of COVID presented a scenario to global governments requiring them to prepare for the worst,” says Michael Stuparyk, ATA’s Director of Business Development. “For a patient that experiences a cytokine storm immune response to the virus, access to a ventilator may be the difference between life and death. This is why the need to increase ventilator availability has been so important.”
One of the few companies selected by the federal government to produce Made in Canada ventilators, StarFish Medical was facing a host of challenges, from supply-chain issues to near-impossible deadlines.
Under normal circumstances, developing a ventilator takes three to five years; StarFish, ATA and the other partners in the project had just months to get the devices available for COVID-patient use. “A lot of things have to happen in parallel,” says Stuparyk of the many ventilator-related challenges, including engineering, design, prototyping, testing (sometimes having to go back and fix things), supply chain issues, and scaling production.
Working with domestic suppliers as much as possible, Advanced Test and Automation called upon some close partners they’d worked with for years, and welcomed some new Canadian-based companies to the fold.
To address the dire ventilator shortage, StarFish formed several partnerships to speed up design development, like their joining of forces with ATA and others who were not historically in the medical device space.
While this presented ATA with the learning curve of new industry-specific processes and language, the company’s expertise in test engineering and pneumatics enabled StarFish to compress production timelines while maintaining strict quality control measures.
“The need to condense schedules required heroic efforts across the project, with continuous long hours and the need to add specialized resources in short order to maintain effectiveness and quality,” says Stuparyk. “Securing the supply chain and working with our partners to deliver on a moment’s notice has been particularly challenging.”
With its unique understanding of quantifying and controlling pneumatic or hydraulic flows, its extensive experience with electromechanical devices, and its grasp of varying materials and the subtleties of manufacturing and testing at higher volumes, ATA was the last partner to join StarFish’s ventilator project.
The reason? Experts like ATA in pneumatic circuit design, testing and manufacturing are far from abundant. Once involved, ATA immediately leveraged its mechanical design resources and Section ID components and processes to make the pneumatics concept of the ventilators a reality.
With accumulated knowledge of flow, precise pressure, electrical systems and more, Advanced Test and Automation knew its skill sets would benefit StarFish, particularly with ventilator oxygen flow. However the company’s initial task – providing test solutions to help StarFish scale production – soon saw ATA involved in more unexpected activities, such as helping StarFish design its pneumatics module.
Although the medical device market is a new area for ATA, the company has applied some of the same engineering processes to pneumatics for ventilators as it has to other sectors in which it has worked, like aerospace and automotive.
For founder and CEO Anthony Khoraych (P.Eng., MBA) the company’s approach to medical is driven by the same need that led him to create ATA in 2005: a passion for solving difficult engineering problems involving complex measurement, monitoring, and controls engineering.
A lifelong learner, innovator and self-described “serial entrepreneur” who started his first business while still a high school student, Khoraych remembers consulting and writing software during his university years, creating engineering applications for his professors. While at the University of Waterloo, he created a software management program to organize renters, which his landlord accepted instead of rent payment for his final year.
Following graduation, he worked for a company focused on systems integration in automotive, manufacturing, medical, and other sectors before creating Advanced Test and Automation 15 years ago.
During the company’s early years, ATA’s projects were diverse. They included one for DeBeers measuring data from a drill rig in Botswana in search of kimberlite – an indicator of diamonds, and another measuring pH conditions in Lake Ontario.
In time, the company drove its focus towards the automotive sector, and is today “zooming back out now with a market view on whatever we are good at,” says Khoraych.
With the automotive market evolving as it moves away from internal combustion engines toward electric vehicles (EVs), ATA is shifting its focus, and has done something of a study of these vehicles. “EVs have many challenges when it comes to thermal management, so we have a lot of technology in terms of testing and conditioning the fluids in the batteries and so on to help benchmark new EV platforms,” says Stuparyk.
“That’s one of our main ways of addressing that market shift. We’ve largely separated the teams working on automotive projects from this [ventilator] project and added several specialized resources. These investment decisions have been part of a long-term strategy to provide rapid prototyping and manufacturing resources to other firms looking to bring electromechanical flow devices to market quickly.”
Since ATA became involved with StarFish, the company has seen considerable interest from other businesses. Believing that any effective battle against COVID-19 would have to be collaborative, ATA is exploring areas including PCR (polymerase chain reaction) – a tool to detect the presence of the virus – and methods to improve testing and to accelerate manual fluid handling with automated processes. This includes disinfectant solutions, and other areas related to the pandemic.
COVID-19 has opened the eyes of the team at ATA to possible collaboration with companies operating in Canada. With its disruptions, including shutdowns in supply chains, the pandemic compelled ATA and other businesses to look closer to home for materials, manufacturing, and engineering expertise. And then NGen, too, helped the company realize the number of available government initiatives, and others they can partner with to provide value.
In the middle of a transition – especially involving its partners in the automotive world with the move towards electrification – ATA is using its agility and skill sets to help other companies, like StarFish, do incredible things in a short amount of time; to do them right, and do them well.
To meet these sorts of urgent needs, the company scaled up its team by 15, with staff working late nights and weekends.
As the next step in the fight against COVID-19 will be the enormous amount of testing and logistics required for vaccine production and distribution, the company is investigating ways to monitor and manage the temperature of vaccines in transit and stored at point-of-care facilities.
While most vaccines need to be stored at between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, COVID vaccines in the works must be kept at -70°C. To address this, ATA can deploy its liquid nitrogen or refrigeration-based cold temperature conditioning systems, with knowledge that can be used with vaccines.
“The ship has sailed in terms of people needing ventilators,” says Stuparyk, “but what we’ve proven is that same agility and knowledge can be applied to the next challenges we face, mainly around the vaccines and testing.”
Deploying solutions worldwide to the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, China and other countries, ATA continues to prove the viability of its Made in Canada solutions to countless customers. The recent launch of the ATA Create and Manufacturing businesses (www.atacreate.com) will shorten time to market of new electromechanical devices, with the company expanding its services to any device where monitoring or manipulating a fluid is required, rather than focusing too much on a particular industry.
“We believe that we have a unique value proposition for new products, as we can provide design, manufacturing and test solutions all under one roof,” says Stuparyk. “It’s rare to find manufacturing partners that have extensive test engineering experience.”
Advanced Test and Automation is particularly interested in helping device manufacturers who need to create prototypes for trials (until now a tricky part of the process for startups to negotiate, with 3D printing serving only very low volumes and most offshore contract manufacturers not being a viable option). And it’s doing so because the company has identified the many opportunities for action, collaboration, progress, and growth that exist in Canada.
“There is a lot of advanced manufacturing and innovative product development going on,” shares Stuparyk. “We want people to know that there is engineering and manufacturing expertise available here from companies like us.”