Automation, mechanisation improving productivity, efficiency in oil palm plantations

Experts suggest that technologies like drones and specialised machinery can perform manual work more efficiently, thereby reducing the need for imported labour. (SD Guthrie pic)

PETALING JAYA: Increased productivity, greater environmental sustainability and better competitiveness are just some of the many benefits of automation and mechanisation for the Malaysian palm oil industry, which is looking to move away from its dependence on foreign workers.

The labour shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic severely affected yield and saw Malaysia lose an estimated RM20 billion to RM30 billion in revenue due to unharvested fresh fruit bunches, underscoring the need for increased automation and mechanisation in a sector which has seen minimal evolution from its traditionally labour-intensive practices.

Speaking to FMT, Malaysian Palm Oil Board director-general Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir said the industry was set to undergo a “dramatic transformation” spearheaded by technological advancements and automation, which would help it overcome challenges such as labour availability.

Ahmad Parveez, who has more than 30 years of experience in the plantation industry, said that streamlining processes through mechanisation would make them more efficient and less labour-intensive.

“The idea of completing tasks promptly and precisely is quite appealing,” he added.

He explained how precision agriculture – which involves the use of technologies such as GPS-guided machines with sensors – optimised plantation management by enabling better monitoring and control of factors such as soil health, irrigation, and pest management, leading to higher-quality crops and improved yields.

Such technologies also save resources by distributing fertilisers, pesticides, and water only where and when necessary, thus reducing waste and promoting environmentally friendly practices which help the industry meet sustainability goals.

Touching on the use of data analytics and artificial intelligence in the industry, Ahmad Parveez said they provided insights into crop health, yield forecasts, and market trends, empowering decision-makers to make informed choices and optimise plantation management strategies.

Moving away from reliance on foreign workers

He said that while technology might replace some manual jobs, it also created opportunities for skilled workers in areas such as machine operation, maintenance and data analysis.

“Investing in training programmes can help develop a workforce equipped to handle the demands of a technologically advanced plantation industry,” he said.

Noting that automation and mechanisation reduced the physical demands and monotony of manual labour, Ahmad Parveez said this made plantation work more attractive, especially to the younger generation of workers, adding that he hoped more Malaysians would join the industry.

He highlighted the industry’s heavy reliance on foreign labour, estimating that more than 80% of its workers were foreigners – especially in certain processes such as harvesting.

Noting how imported labour was interrupted during the pandemic, he said the industry lost “billions of ringgit” due to unharvested fresh fruit bunches as a result.

“Mechanisation and automation are the solutions to overcome this issue in the long term. Robotic arms, drones and specialised machinery can carry out manual work more efficiently. This will also reduce the need for so much imported labour,” he said.

“By incorporating technologies, we will not only make a shift towards a more comfortable and engaging work environment, we will also require a skilled workforce to operate and maintain the machines.

“This will provide opportunities for local workers to grow and adapt, and upgrade themselves to become part of this skilled workforce. This will, in turn, enhance their value in the industry and allow them to earn better incomes.”

New plantation technologies are being developed and tested at SD Guthrie’s Mechanisation Transformation Unit and Robotics Centre in Carey Island, Selangor. (SD Guthrie pic)

He said that while implementing technology and mechanisation might involve some upfront costs, the long-term savings would be significant.

By reducing the need for manual labour and optimising resource application, technology can help lower production costs while increasing profits, he said.

“With machines taking on all the heavy lifting that nobody likes doing in the first place, workers would have time to focus on matters like specialised roles or more effective jobs. Plus, with these new focuses, their overall job satisfaction will be improved by a few fold,” he said.

Collaboration key to innovation

The plantation and commodities ministry recently announced plans to collaborate with the science, technology and innovation ministry to promote various technological innovations to assist the industry, particularly in harvesting.

Fastmarket Palm Oil Analytics senior analyst Sathia Varqa told FMT that while such collaboration would be crucial in steering the industry forward, there was also a need for greater research and development in the sector.

Acknowledging the industry’s reliance on foreign workers, he agreed that automation and mechanisation would help transform the sector from labour-intensive to technology-driven.

He also noted how SD Guthrie Bhd, formerly known as Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s largest sustainable palm oil producers, was pioneering the industry’s effort to create oil palm plantations of the future.

“SD Guthrie is driving this initiative forward,” he said.

“The technology is there, but that is a medium- to long-term solution as it may be difficult for all plantations to adopt such technologies now.”

Several of these new technologies are currently being developed and tested at SD Guthrie’s Mechanisation Transformation Unit and Robotics Centre in Carey Island, Selangor. Established in 2021, the facility aims to build the company’s internal expertise in digital and robotic technologies.

The company also collaborates with local and international technology partners as well as higher academic institutions to develop advanced solutions to replace conventional back-breaking manual work in oil palm plantations.

A couple of new machines developed by the company – a mechanised terrace fertiliser applicator and a mechanised rat bait applicator – have not only been deployed by SD Guthrie in its operations but are also commercially available.


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