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Exclusive Interview with Douglas Tan, Group Managing Director of ABS.Global and ABS Innovations

Douglas Tan’s Background

Douglas Tan has an extensive career in Business and Management Consulting over the last 25 years, working with more than a hundred multinational and successful companies, assisting them with growth, profit, and productivity improvement projects. He has a degree in Finance and holds an MBA in Quality Operations Management. Douglas is a wannabe “Half-Marathoner”, enjoys vacationing to “destinations less traveled” and is an active member of “Not-For-Profit and Charitable Organisations”.

Douglas is the Group Managing Director of ABS Innovations a company involved with offering comprehensive digital solutions and innovative technologies to directly improve the Yields and Productivity of plantation companies. ABS Innovations approach to driving Yields and Productivity in the palm oil industry focuses on changing operating behaviors through digital transformation. This successful approach has been adopted by many plantation companies with a cumulative total planted area of more than 1.5 million Ha and more than 100 mills, across the Southeast Asia Region.

1. Could you share with us on ABS’ approaches and business strategies in staying through these difficult times due to the pandemic?

The world has been through a shakedown that very few businesses or individuals were prepared for. Fortunately for all of us at ABS, we are a collective of agile and forward-thinking individuals who have found ways to strive and innovate our product offerings in-line with the changing needs of our customers as a result of the changing business environment.

In the current pandemic situation where national and local authorities have imposed various forms of movement restrictions, many customers have found that they have to operate their businesses very differently. Due to restricted traveling and work activities, many companies would require non-traditional ways to operate, such as video conferencing, remote performance monitoring and real-time performance dashboard, visibility of work execution, and autonomous supervision alerts.

Maintenance Supervisor verifying that work orders are closed digitally.

Understanding these needs from our customers, our team very quickly designed and developed specialized digital tools and services to support our customers’ operations requirements, hence providing them with better solutions to operate in these difficult and changing times. ABS has served many companies over the last 10 years, assisting them in their Digital Transformation strategy and journey.

To be quite honest, we have now received many more inquiries about our digital transformation services and digital tools from various businesses, especially plantation companies to assist them in implementing our digital solutions in their operations.

Mill supervisor capturing photo evidence of unusual parameters for immediate action.

2. With labor shortage heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, how does it affect ABS’ market for mill management (MMMP)?

The labor shortage in the oil palm industry, although heightened during COVID-19, has always been a foreseeable challenge for many of our customers in the industry. At ABS we believe that if you can provide your team with the right tools and operational approach to execute the business, then you can rely on a smaller, and more productive team to achieve as much if not greater results.

Our MMMP (Mill Micro Macro Program) presents to the palm oil millers and management an approach to drive yield and productivity, focussing on work behaviors through a digital platform. The MMMP approach that has been adopted by our palm oil mill customers has proven to increase yield and work productivity by providing mobility to the mill workforce aided by seamless information flow and interaction in operations at all organizational levels for timely and better decision making.

Process Supervisor checking & recording VCT oil level digitally with MMMP.

3. Please share with us on ABS’ new products/projects on the yield and productivity improvement in palm oil mills through Digital Transformation. What are the digitalization tools that have been adapted?

principles to drive and manage critical operating behaviors for the following workstreams; Production Floor Management, Maintenance Management, FFB Quality & Grading Management, FFB Supplier Management, Lab & Oil Loss Management. The digital technologies that are deployed for the application of MMMP digital tools, among others are Smart Mobile Phones, GPS, Near-Field Communication, Facial Recognition, Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing, Edge

Devices, and IoT Sensors.

Digitalised grading at the ramp for seamless flow of data.

In the Production Floor Management workstream, for example, one of the controls that we implement for our customers is the Alert Supervision system. This system provides “push-alerts” to mill supervisors’ and managers’ handphones when critical machines are not operating within set optimum parameters. These alert data are obtained from IoT sensors that are installed at critical machines, and they provide instant information to the supervisors to recover the failure of the machine and also to track and monitor the turn-around time of the recovery.

This digitalized Alert Supervision system has benefited our mill customers immensely because it drives the right operating behaviors in running machines optimally, which results in reduced oil losses, improved oil extraction yield, and increased workforce productivity.

4. Could you share in-depth on how Digital Transformation improves work efficiency in the palm oil mills? Do you think that the pandemic will accelerate the Digital Transformation?

The ABS approach in Digital Transformation for the palm oil mills is purposed to increase yield and productivity through the transformation of operational processes, information accesses, and operating behaviors. Digitalization provides a means to reduce manual paperwork and increase automation. Workers no longer need to collate, write, and transpose data from one source to another manually, as these processes can be captured automatically and efficiently.

Real-time information on the running of each machine and workstation in the mill be monitored remotely and alerts on failures can recover must faster. Digitalisation also offers a platform to enable a mobile workforce where work can be performed not only in a confined office but be done while on the move through smartphones and web-enabled programs. In a digitalized nvironment, operational information can be shared seamlessly with all relevant workforce anywhere anytime. Decisions can be better prescribed and made much faster through analytical insights and predictive modeling from timely and accurate big data analysis.

Digitalization is no longer an option as the milling business becomes competitive and that millers are looking for the next leap in yield and productivity performance. The pandemic has certainly revealed not only the need but the urgency for palm oil millers to embrace digital transformation. It is foreseeable that digitalization shall be the established norm in mill operations very soon.

Lab Assistant recording press fibre samples digitally in MMMP Lab & Oil loss control module.

5. Besides focusing on the cost, usage, and information mobility, what are the other aspects that ABS are considering pertaining to the mill management?

Focusing on the improvement and management of behaviors. This is something we have preached for the past 25 years at ABS. Our methodology to successfully drive improvements for some of the world’s largest leading businesses has all been focused around driving a productive, efficient, high yielding business through well-managed behaviors. We find that most businesses have the right machines, materials, SOP’s, and resources, however, they are still not able to achieve the results and targets that are possible, this is because the right behaviors and activities are not instilled and managed effectively within the business.

So when we provide solutions, we always look at how our approach will effectively facilitate the right behaviors to drive the right results. In addition to focusing on behaviors, ABS has always been at the forefront of new innovations within the industry, and we continue to strive in that direction. Our customers find it relieving and exciting to have ABS as the industry experts always by their side, ready to consult and drive our customers forward by charting out the best possible technology roadmap, allowing for exciting and attainable goals, utilizing the most ideal and advanced digital tools.

Preventive maintenance activities are performed via digital checklists.

Lastly, our approach, truly encompasses what is considered to be a lean form of management, by implementing the right closed-loop processes focusing on continuous improvement and results-driven approaches. It is essential to take this standard and apply it with the right systems when managing not only a mill but all types of manufacturing facilities. MMMP abides by the focus that Lean is about constant ticking, not occasional kicking.

Process Supervisor entering Digester Fill level in PMMP.

6. What is your take on the perception that palm oil milling is falling behind when it comes to Industry 4.0?

We do believe that most businesses that fall under the umbrella of agriculture, typically are not as quick to uptake and indulge in the latest and greatest technology that is representative in Industry 4.0, however, we have seen a major shift in the mentality regarding the adoption of technology in the palm oil milling industry. As a large number of mills have been around for a couple of decades, the managers are always looking for new and innovative ways to upgrade the facility in a reasonable and profiting approach. We believe that at this phase of growth, most mills are looking for ‘must-have’ technologies as opposed to ‘nice to have’ technologies.

We continue to consider this as we expand and further develop our MMMP platform. All of the operational controls that we develop have to ensure that they are not only using the latest technologies but in tandem, we must consider whether the technology is commercially viable or truly a necessity for achieving higher OER and reduce oil losses. We believe that world-class mills don’t just invest in technology, they invest in outcomes.

Mill Manager checking parameters during his MMMP scheduled mill walkabout.


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