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Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Plantations

Sheldon Lahra has had an interesting career across the Asia Pacific region, working with over a dozen business sectors, where he focused his attention on leveraging technology and customer, employee, product, and brand experience as a driver to successfully consult and manage teams both internally and for clients. Sheldon has a passion for innovation and the application of technology which has led him to find a new work home at ABS.Global.

Sheldon Lahra joined ABS.Global in May 2019 as the Director of Customer Experience & Development and has now stepped into the position of Group Chief Executive Officer (GCEO) where he continues to drive an arrowhead vision of increasing business productivity and financial performance by focusing on the key behaviors of the business’ most valuable assets, its people.

ABSI Malaysia Country Head, Viknes Perumal working with Estate Managers to adapt to our PMMP digital solution

1. The last interview we had was back in 2020, knowing that ABS is always at the forefront of technology, would you like to update what ABS has been busy with recently?

Firstly, thank you for having ABS back. It is always a pleasure to work with Asia Palm Oil Magazine. Now to your question, the past two years has been both exciting and positively challenging for ABS, as we embarked on the integration of more refined and intelligent technologies to better assist our customers in achieving greater productivity and yield improvements in their plantations & mills through our core products PMMP and MMMP. For anyone who has not yet heard of ABS, our products simply put are programs that ensure that the right job is done, by the right person, at the right time, in the right way.

PMMP offers a variety of essential modules for successful plantation management such as,

  • Field Inspection & Loss Recovery Control to ensure all losses are recovered and accounted for and fields are well maintained.

  • FFB Quantity & Quality Control to improve harvesting quality and accuracy of data.

  • Evacuation & Backlog Control to reduce FFB backlog and improve evacuation performance.

  • Maintenance & Upkeep Control to provide transparency on fertilizer, Pest & Disease, Weeding, and Pruning activities in the field.

  • Morning Muster Attendance Control to ensure accurate, productive, and transparent morning briefings.

As for our mill solution MMMP, we offer the following modules to effectively monitor and close the loop on key mill operations,

  • FFB Grading & Quality Control to ensure grading is performed accurately and timely.

  • Production Floor Control to drive proactive inspection and have early error detection.

  • Maintenance Control to create a behavior of Total Productive Maintenance.

  • Lab & Oil Loss Control to ensure oil loss management is managed and improved on.

  • FFB Supplier Management Control to create a “Win- Win” relationship between suppliers and the mill.

With our feet always in the fields, our ears always with our customers, and our heads often in the clouds, we have concluded that the next big space where we have already established a footprint, is the utilization of AI and Machine Learning to rapidly improve work done and work reviewed by plantations companies.

ABS working with the mill team to Implement a Control Panel wtih Edge Device & 3G Gateways to support IoT’s in a clients mill

2. It has been almost two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the challenges that ABS faced throughout the pandemic?

The most obvious challenge presented to ABS I believe was the case for many companies, working remotely. The work style change was initially alarming, as we have always been a handson business when working together with clients, we enjoy being out in the field and mills to do our evaluations side by side with the plantation team to have a true sense of business operations.

We have, however, come to appreciate both the technology and commitment from our teams and customers, where we have successfully moved all our business into a hybrid structure to be able to remotely work together as a team and go to the field when safe and necessary.

One of the positive outcomes from this global change is how the plantation industry has become more aware and ready to implement the right systems and technologies to remotely review and manage their estates, as travel has become a costly and sometimes impossible thing to do due to regulations.

Although travel restrictions will certainly change, I can see the sentiment of technology adoption and Industry 4.0 becoming more prevalent in the plantation sector. Many business owners, C-suite executives, and senior managers are quickly taking to the benefit of having daily digital reports on their mobile device or laptop so they can peek into the operations of their plantation of mills to actively supervise and provide direction n improvements. So, although the year has been swamped with tragic downsides, we have seen one or two silver linings within the industry – the industry is moving forward on smarter tech and doing so very rapidly.

AI Bunch Counting & Grading as an integrate product to PMMP to improve on Consitency & Accuracy

3. Players in the industry have started to embrace Industry 4.0 to help alleviate manpower shortages and lockdown disruptions. Could you share with me what the AI-Driven Plantation by ABS has to offer?

AI and Machine Learning technology has become more prevalent in the past couple of years and certainly have their benefits. However, we have seen a real case of the blind leading the blind, where algorithms and systems are being implemented into everyday solutions in plantations in an attempt to be considered IR4.0 technologies but have yet to prove any real benefit to

  • Increasing potential yields

  • Improving manpower productivity

This is where ABS has combined our profound knowledge on business transformation & business consultancy to apply AI to key areas of the plantation operations where we can help to provide a reduction in cost, improvement in revenues, and significantly greater transparency & truth of the key business activities.

Three of our more recent AI integrations to our platform, Plantation Micro Macro Program or PMMP, would be the following:

First, FFB QQ+, a module that combines AI into the practice of bunch counting & grading. Just snap a quick photo of your bunches at the platform or infield and let the computer within your mobile device think. This is the fastest route to collecting a non-bias and honest inventory of your harvested bunches in the field.

Second is our DDSS+, a Drone Decision Support System enhanced by three different neural networks so once drone images are collected and stitched, we can process key data such as your stand count, vacant points, and even palm health.

Third but not least, our Attendance+, with the latest introduction of facial recognition & thermal reading, can improve morning muster turn-around-time and eliminate any ghost workers or illegitimate employees within a matter of seconds.

Our three new technologies are certainly forward-thinking but will always fall short if it was not for our platform and approach, PMMP. Now that we have these tools, it is imperative to have a place to report and drive actions to close the loop on performance gaps or opportunities identified.

Some of the ABS Indonesia Team having virtual town hall due to the new remote working culture

4. In your opinion, how could AI and robotics play a role in managing plantations more effectively? And would this ever be a threat to replace manual labor?

At ABS we do believe that AI and robotics are already starting to make a positive impression on the industry, however, we have a long way to go. Technology does not always transfer as an equal from different industries. For example, all the way down in Melbourne, Australia, there are apple orchards that have started testing AI-driven robots that identify ripeness and then physically harvest the apples from the tree, truly remarkable technology, but not yet ideal for the oil palm industry. With an average commercial plantation ranging anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 hectares and palm trees that can grow as tall as 30 meters, the practicality of a robot harvesting your bunches seems very far away.

I do however believe there is a place for AI & robotics in plantations today, by sharing the workload with people. We have seen ample success when our customers combine both the evaluation and decision making through AI automation and the corrective action and enhancement driven by the people and employees of the business. We have found that AI & Robotics help to replace mundane and repetitive tasks that typically would have been seen as an unexciting job to do, this has enabled companies to redirect their labor to more complex and higher-value tasks.

A great example of this is using our DDSS+, where a drone is used to capture your plantation images, the algorithm will process these images, providing an output of over the canopy census of every tree, task, and block. Now that the Drone and AI have performed the data collection and analysis to identify critical factors such as vacant spots or unhealthy palms, we can now pass the baton to the labor force by issuing follow up activities directly through our platform PMMP where the workers can step in to close the loop on any key actions, whether it be fertilizer programs, pest & disease treatments, or replanting schedules.

So if we look at applying AI and robotics to plantations, it can certainly play a major role by speeding up data collection, but for the short, to medium term, we will still need to rely on a labor force to drive the corrective action.

ABS Senior Consultant, Siva, teaching estate executives how to succesfully manage maintenance activity actions identified from their first experience using our DDSS+

5. Which other industries do ABS Innovations plan to expand their portfolio into?

We certainly have major growth plans, looking at expanding our current capabilities to better service the oil palm plantations, where we have already amounted to a significant footprint of 2 million hectares and over 100 mills. In addition, we have stretched our knowledge to other unique and key crops across the SEA region, where we can help to improve operations for industries such as Durian, Pineapple, Rubber, Sugarcane, Coconut, and the list goes on.

This growth will not only target the SEA region, but we will continue to drive a focus to other locations such as West Africa and Latin America. One of our new and exciting expansions took off in 2018, ABS was the first to pioneer a system to better improve the management and operations of durian plantations. We decided to drive change in the durian industry due to the complexity and sensitivity of successfully achieving the right yields, due to the durian tree’s fragile and fickle nature.

ABS is also proud to announce that in collaboration with the most prestigious and successful agricultural research university in Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), to develop a Centre of Excellence to uplift the durian industry with more insights on best agricultural practices and sciences. So far, we have seen huge success with our current client base and have seen an overwhelming response from planters who are looking to achieve greater results in their plantations.

The truth is, our value proposition at ABS encompasses the three core principles to driving business success in agriculture: Management Approaches, Technology & Agricultural Science. We can assist any Agri industry with the objective of driving yield and productivity.

Sheldon Lahra walking the field with the estate manager to review the real ground operations

6. What are the steps that companies need to take and challenges that they need to address when adopting Industry 4.0 especially in the palm oil industry?

The first and most important step is to eliminate your traditional methods of data collection, reporting, and people management. Without taking this first plunge, businesses may see very little return or improvement in their plantations or mill.

Implementing a holistic program such as PMMP or anything of its equivalence is the first step. It is important to first focus on improving the behaviors of your people to effectively collect, analyze and act on the operational insights of your plantation, once this is done right you can look at implementing the right technologies to subsidize the steps of either collection or analysis on the data.

As for the action portion, it is still more reliable to rely on our labor force in plantations due to the technology gap. At ABS not only has the systems to get you started, but our core specialty is the consultation and assessments to evaluate current the landscape in plantations and mills, and we can certainly point you in the right direction of is the first step you

need to take.


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