Embracing Industry 4.0 in palm oil milling — Hong Wai Onn

FEBRUARY 19 — We may not be zipping around with rockets on our backs, but life in recent years is still remarkably different than it was even a decade ago, especially with constant technological advances and inventions coming out every year.

In the last decade, using an app to hail a ride or send money to your friends or make purchases for everything from clothes, food delivery, groceries, and more has become commonplace and talking to smart speakers to turn on lights, play music, or read recipes seems normal.

We are indeed standing on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.

Before we move on, let’s reflect on the industrial revolution development. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production.

And now the Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It’s characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

It’s obvious that the future of technology will continue to revolutionise our lives. While I do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear — we, especially palm oil industry, can’t run away from the waves of change.

The palm oil industry is a significant contributor to the Malaysian economy and in terms of natural resources is second only to oil and gas. Total exports of Malaysian palm oil and its downstream derivatives in 2019 generated RM64.8 billion revenue (or 3.5 per cent of the gross domestic product) to the country.

To progress while remaining globally competitive and relevant, palm oil milling industry particularly must adopt and equip itself with the latest technologies and innovations. New technologies should be the catalyst for modernisation of the whole industry, making it more productive and efficient while enhancing growth and value addition.

I believe it’s important for the industry to move towards automation and capitalise on the Industry 4.0, the subset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that concerns industry.

The adoption of Industry 4.0 will not only enhance the overall operational efficiency of the palm oil milling industry but also result in sustainable development, where precision operation is evident in the form of reduced labour inputs, reduced risks in stocks, process safety, quality and contamination, and improved productivity.

It’s obvious we need to change

It’s evident that change is the only constant. But is the palm oil milling industry ready for the change?

By placing science and technology through PORIM (Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia) and later until today MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board), there were many incremental improvements and changes in various unit operations in Malaysian palm oil mills, but they have not changed significantly since the publication of Mongana report by a team of scientists in Congo in the 1950s.

There is still room for improvement, especially on process control and automation.

When I guest lectured at a local university not long ago, a chemical engineering student asked me why palm oil milling industry is lagging behind when it comes to Industry 4.0. This is indeed a good question.

Many reasons could procrastinate the revolution, but I hope it is not because of reluctance. Some people may resist change simply because they could be complacent due to the high profit margin and feel maintaining the status quo is easier than rocking the boat.

But the truth is while we are sitting comfortably thinking that everything is coasting along fine (e.g. we are ahead of the curve compared to other vegetable oils and oil palm is by far the most efficient oil seed crop in the world), our competition has just brought a new engine for their speed boat (e.g. soybean yield has been increased by more than 20 per cent in the past 15 years in key producing countries), and we’re not only getting left behind, we are drifting off course.

I like books that detail failures as more as books that detail success. Let me share with you a failure story from the business world.

Kodak was the king of photography. By and large, Kodak invented the photography as we knew it in the 20th century. They perfected the technology and by the 1990s a Kodak kiosk was pretty much on every corner of every city around the world.

Then, in the late 1990s digital photography started becoming a thing, and Kodak completely ignored it. Some would say that's the fate of all “old” players, but Nikon and Cannon embraced digital and emerged as top players again, while Kodak kept dismissing the new technology until in 2012 it filed for bankruptcy.

Even though the company is still around, young kids probably won't even recognise this name.

Many people would say this might be an odd case here and there where Kodak failed to spot new opportunities and adapt. Really? How about Yahoo!, Nokia and BlackBerry?

Embracing Industry 4.0 in palm oil mills

There needs to be a paradigm shift and I believe we should together shape the future of palm oil milling that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost made by people for people.

For example, simplify the work environment, reduce human efforts, reduce safety risks, to name but a few.

I acknowledge that in industry research and development commercialisation is not a priority due to the risk involved. Industry players need to have an innovative mindset bearing in mind technical risks and gestation period.

The millers need to be educated and see there are many solutions outside of conventional answer. Researchers and universities should involve the millers at the developing stage to reduce the reservations. There is now less money for research and some universities do an economic impact first which includes finding an industry partner.

While palm oil milling industry is trailing behind refinery and oleochemical industry in Industry 4.0, it’s indeed encouraging to see few initiatives have been originated.

Sime Darby Plantation has built a pilot mill with a number of sensors, controllers, and near-infrared spectrophotometer. This plant incorporates also supervisory control and data acquisition technology — which is presently not widely used in palm oil mill — and will bring the industry up to Industry 3.0, and potentially Industry 4.0, level.

There is also another palm pilot mill built by Novozymes Malaysia, a global biotechnology company headquartered in Bagsværd outside of Copenhagen, to test their biological solutions and study mass balance flows. They also use digitalisation tools and data analysing skill to research the palm oil milling process in this pilot mill.

I believe this is the right move for the industry. We should not only invest in technical infrastructure and data analysing capabilities, but also engineer a smart yet simple system for process control.

Dark factories?

“Sir, what does the future industry look like?” asked a student when I was concluding my guest lecture on Industry 4.0. I remember how puzzling they were to me when I answered the question with a black slide.

I told the students, “Dark factories could be the future!” I added, “factories in future will be operating 24 hours 7 days a week in the dark. They require no light as the workers are pre-programmed robot.’

While I know this might not possible to realise in palm oil mills overnight, I hope we could at least witness a step change in technological revolution, just as I have daydreamed about.

While there was a successful story in measuring press liquor oil content using Near-infrared analyser (for automatic dilution control purpose), we should capitalise this learning in other process streams.

I always believe one day in future we can address scientifically the myth of total potential oil that has been puzzling the industry for many decades.

Palm oil milling could also be fully automated to not only reduce human efforts, but also reduce safety risks as workers will be operating far from the control room.

Digitalisation tools should be adopted for better decision making and make our work easier. This will lead to significant increase in productivity and can reduce costs.

It is impossible to repeat too often that Industry 4.0 is important. We need to develop leaders with the skills to manage mills and organisations through these dramatic shifts.

As professionals, we need to embrace change and realise that what our jobs are today might be dramatically different in the not too distant future. Our education and training systems need to adapt to better prepare people for the flexibility and critical thinking skills they will need in future workplace.

* Hong Wai Onn is a chartered chemical engineer

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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