Its the common consensus that it’s high time there was a tangible change to the existing approach to the Natural Rubber industry in Malaysia and the region. More than 50 years ago the first step into some level of automation with the implementation of the SMR process and standard, while it was and is a significant and lasting development but the industry reaching it has pretty much stayed the same, effectively labour intensive with grades based on dirt content.
In the words of a very wise man, the tree produces only one grade of rubber, pure and pristine, it takes considerable effort in order to introduce the dirt that then requires a grading system. Such things as automated tapping systems in the form of electical tapping knives, puncture tapping etc, poly-bagging, special containers etc have been around for decades but have been relegated to talking points and filing cabinets. It is reminiscent of the ungodly battle to get the SMR standard and process accepted, change seemed to be the enemy then, I believe it has been pretty much the same in recent times.
We are relegated to a labour intensive plantation industry, in Malaysia dependent to an utterly ridiculous level by foreign labour, from the plantations to what is left of our SMR and latex production units. For the very reason of the added labour requirement for the collection of latex vs the short cut of collecting cup lump instead has seen our very successful glove manufacturing industry import their latex requirement from regional producers. There is no point in pondering how we got here, we need leadership and commitment to convert our Rubber industry into the 21st century.
The answer lies in upgrading the rubber industry from the plantation all the way to the production of SMR and latex. Malaysia should go back to its roots and become a premier producer of rubber, producing only one grade, premium high quality SMR and latex. Yes this sounds like some kind of unrealistic dream but I along with several others in the industry firmly believe its possible, in fact I would go further to say it has to happen.
It starts from the tree. Consider the use of auto tapping systems that will significantly reduce the time taken per tree, possibly even systems attached to each tree that tap following a schedule and the labour content in terms of tapping is about adjustment and replacement only, a technical job rather than general labour and with significant improvement in productivity.
Collection would be weekly, every 10 days or even fortnightly. The latex at the tree dosed appropriately to keep it as latex. This time and medium allows the same time frame to become an opportunity for additional treatment. The latex can be treated at the tree for deproteinization and possibly other quality and performance upgrades. The treatment can then be continued through the latex collection point or homogenization tanks at which point the decision is made to centrifuge for 60% DRC premium deproteinizated latex or coagulated for premium deproteinized SMR L (Latex grade) rubber.
The SMR process can be further automated and upgraded by further treatment during the creping process for reodourization (No Smell Rubber) and then through a revamped drying system that affords a contiunous drying system without the conventional bogeys and trays. The newly creped rubber would be sent automatically prepped and then contiuously dried with non-stick surfaces until they are weighed cut and baled in an entirely automated system. There would be no grading necessary as there would be no dirt introduced into the system since the tree.
What we would be looking at would be a substantial reduction of the labour content and an upgrade of the labour input to a technical level from the plantation to the final premium SMR or high spec latex. The automation and the upgradation of final product can be carried out at the end of the day at a marginal cost increase by the combination of reduced labour cost with all the foreign labour infrastructure and support mechanisms. This coupled with the tangible improvements in productivity in the SMR process from reduced labour cost, no human labour input from the time the latex is coagulated, to production efficiency.
Imagine the plantation being run primarily by “Plantation Technicians”, well paid personnel who have a decent wage and all the benefits of plantation life and operating at a productivity level that makes the plantation a well oiled machine. Imagine also the SMR production unit operating at equally sophisticated levels of productivity run by process technicians without the need for general labour to shovel cup lump around and into the system and cleaning crews whose only job is to regularly scrub clean the trays and bogeys to prevent the rubber from sticking to their surfaces, to the extent that cleaning detergents are a significant line item in terms of cost. Efficient continuous drying systems that operate at full efficiency without what is considered in this day and age very substantial energy consumption.
Consider also the impact of not requiring scores of foreign labour to run the plantation and the SMR and Latex production systems. The new age plantation through to production system run for the most part by Malaysians producing world class prod