Industry 4.0: What does it behold for commodities?

Valuable commodity: A worker using a tractor-grabber to collect oil palm fruit bunch in a plantation in Pulau Carey, Selangor.

The term ‘Industry 4.0’ has become a global buzzword since its introduction by the Germans in 2011. There are so many definitions and big words thrown around, it can be difficult for the layman to understand what it is all about.

In my simple words, Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is about having machines that are able to send, receive and act on instructions that are connected to computing systems in-situ and through communications networks that enable them to interact with other machines and humans to produce goods and deliver services efficiently. In other words, Industry 4.0 is about greater mechanisation.

I may oversimplify things but I am no fan of overcomplicating matters!

Changing times: At the infancy of Industry 4.0, digital technology had permeated into many physical systems, including deployment of sensing, transportation and manufacturing to name a few.
Changing times: At the infancy of Industry 4.0, digital technology had permeated into many physical systems, including deployment of sensing, transportation and manufacturing to name a few.

The dawn of Industry 4.0

Today, at the infancy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, digital technology has permeated into many physical systems. This includes deployment of sensing, computing and communicating systems in management of energy grids, transportation, manufacturing and water, or even our everyday household devices – cars, refrigerators, entertainment systems and air-conditioning (read IoT or Internet of Things).

Even more astonishing is the embedding of such systems in the human body to restore sensory, cognitive and motor functions in people disabled by injury or neurological conditions.

Sounds like a scene from Star Trek or Minority Report? Yes, it is but this time it is for real.

Is it relevant for commodities?

You may ask how can it apply to the plantation industries and commodities such as palm oil, rubber, timber, cocoa or pepper. Plenty, I would say, if you dare to imagine.

Take oil palm, for instance. It is entirely imaginable that with sensors linked to computing systems though communications networks, we can track productivity by palm, rather than by plot or estate.

We should be able to know the stress level of each palm caused by prolonged dry or wet weather and interventions that are required such as irrigation, fertilisation and pesticide application. This has a direct impact on fresh fruit bunch (FFB) yield.

When it comes to harvesting and evacuation, it would be ideal to have an integrated machine that can precisely identify FFBs that are perfectly ripe, cut them from the palms, collect entire bunches without loose fruits dropping on the ground and deliver them directly to the mill, autonomously.

Oil yields will improve dramatically through the combination of perfectly ripe FFBs that are also not bruised through unnecessary multiple handling and minimal loose fruit loss.

In fact, you can visualise estate management being conducted from a control centre with much less direct human involvement.

With growing demand for traceability, Industry 4.0 applications may be able to help a consumer determine the origins of the palm oil contained in a product, using radio-frequency identification or visual codes, to know if the ingredient is sustainably produced.

It requires even less imagination to see the application of Industry 4.0 in the milling, refining and oleochemical processes as well as transportation that will improve productivity, safety and quality.

Similarly, Industry 4.0 can help to alleviate productivity challenges both in the upstream and downstream of the rubber industry. Our on-going trial of the Automated Rubber Tapping System (ARTS) is already an indication that timed tapping, latex collection and bulking, and use of stimulant can be mechanised while collection and data crunching of gram per tree per tapping (GTT) can help to determine the intervention required to increase yield.

On the other hand, demand for foreign labour can be moderated with great automation in rubber glove production lines, as one of our industry-leading manufacturers, Hartalega, has demonstrated with its current workers per million pieces input of 2.6 at its Next Generation Centre (NGC) in Sepang compared to several folds more in its other facilities, which are being upgraded. There is so much more productivity enhancement that can be achieved with greater IOT deployment.




Too good to be true?

Not entirely. The embedding of sensing, computing and communicating systems in vehicles, drones and other machinery is entirely achievable today.

Global Positioning System and mobile networks along with data transmission and big data analytics have become commonplace.

Granted, the deployment of such machineries and systems for annual crops planted on plains are far easier than executing the same for perennial crops planted on more undulating terrains such as oil palm and rubber. With proper focus, collaboration and allocation of resources, nothing is impossible.

Current challenges dictate change

The truth of the matter is that challenges that we face today are already forcing our hands. The lack of labour has resulted in a loss of FFB and oil extraction yields.

Yield potential has reached a plateau while we work on new clones via genomics research that can steepen the curve again.

Coupled with limited land for new planting and the necessity to maintain our forest cover in line our Paris Climate Conference pledge, our only option is to raise productivity.

To begin with, we are in great need for humbler mechanised devices for harvesting, loose fruit collection and evacuation. Both brownfield and greenfield inventions are being considered through platforms such as the International Competition on Palm Mechani­sa­tion. These will act as the bridge to the Industry 4.0 future.

In tandem with the current national conversation with all segments of stakeholders under Transformasi Nasional 50 or TN50, we in the plantation industries and commodities space must also start the engagement to determine our way forward.

As a sector that accounts for 10% of the GDP, we have the responsibility to ensure that its relevance and sustainability is undiminished.

Industry 4.0 is an opportunity for Malaysia to develop the plantation industries and commodities of the future. Plain and simple.


Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong is Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities. Commodities Today and Beyond is his op-ed to share his views, hopes and visions for commodities with everyday Malaysians.

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Opinion , Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong


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