By Charles F. Moreira, Editor
Following our e-mail interview on advanced automation within Malaysia’s medical rubber gloves industry with Mr. Alexander Hummel, President of DOEKA Asia Sdn Bhd, which supplies advanced industrial automation equipment and systems in Part 1:-
In this part, Enterprise Trade Views (EnterpriseTV) delves deeper into various aspects related to automation of manufacturers in Malaysia and Asia, with Mr. Hummel (DOEKA-AH) and DOEKA Asia Managing Director Mr. Daryl Kok (DOEKA-DK) in a Zoom session on 6 September 2021.
EnterpriseTV: Hello Daryl and Mr. Hummel, nice to meet you. Thank you very much for replying to my e-mailed questions. You more of less answered everything.
DOEKA-AH: Hello. Nice to meet you too. You asked very good questions.
EnterpriseTV: Danke. Earlier this year, there were many media reports about 18 production plants of one of Malaysia’s largest glove makers having to suspend operations due to a high number of COVID-19 cases being detected amongst their mostly migrant workforce, most of whom are housed in high density accommodation in dormitories with little opportunity for social distancing and this led me to wonder whether Malaysia’s glove makers could adopt advanced automation, especially in the currently still labour-intensive end-of-line packing operations.
Maybe you would know better than me, but is it difficult to automate the packing process?
DOEKA-AH: Of course it’s not easy. Gloves are a flexible product, and the glove is different from lot to lot. Of course there are some challenges, but we can handle that, as that’s not an issue. We just have introduced our latest Fully-automatic Packaging Machine for Examination Gloves (type EGP-FA-BE-CV). It’s a high-speed machine with vision control of the gloves. Everything is done fully automatically; they only need to put the gloves into a bin and get the fully packed gloves box at the end of our machine. Only one person is needed for 8 machines, instead of 30 persons per shift for the same capacity.
The other thing is these companies on with the dipping lines are not so familiar with automation and they also have some approaches which are not successful without an experienced supplier. As mentioned before, gloves like condoms are very challenging products for automation.
They need to treat also the supplier of these automation like a partner because we have to do the project together. We need to handle the this challenging part and we need to put the gloves into boxes fully automatically.
There are some companies we have visited which have some old men style where the suppliers of equipment are not treated as partners but more like enemies.
For example, some just want to get the equipment but don’t want to pay, so we cannot work with them. They need to have a different and more modern style of approach if they want to proceed and succeed in this in this area.
EnterpriseTV: Yes, the problem is that there is a lot of traditional and legacy thinking as you know.
Another question is that when they can get cheap labour from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh and so forth, what incentive do the manufacturers have to want to automate and invest in technology, and is it cheaper to hire migrant labour than to invest in automation machines, do they have enough people capable of operating and maintaining the machines?
DOEKA:-AH: What do you think is the future. Do you think the government will still allow or enable migrant labour to come into the country or do you think they will stop that?
EnterpriseTV: It’s hard to say.Since March 2020, the government has been preoccupied with trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 and in dealing with its adverse impact upon the economy and jobs, so I am not sure how much time and resources they have to attend to development and other policy matters, such as digitalisation and advanced automation.
For instance, there is the Industry4WRD: National Policy on Industry 4.0, amongst other objectives, aims to enable Malaysia’s manufacturers to reduce their reliance on manual labour, especially migrant. It was published by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in 2018 during the time Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir and runs until 2025.
Industry4WRD aims to transform the manufacturing sector and related services within the period from 2018 to 2025. It consists of three visions in making Malaysia as:
- Strategic partner for smart manufacturing and related services in the Asia Pacific;
- Primary destination for investment in the high technology industry;
- And, a total solutions provider for cutting-edge technology.
More recently, Malaysia’s National Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Policy published by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) was announced on 1 July 2021 by the government of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and will cover the ten years from 2021 to 2030.
The National 4IR Policy is aligned with the National Policy on Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTIN) 2021-2030, that aims to develop Malaysia as a high-tech nation by 2030. In this regard, the National 4IR Policy will further drive the aspirations of DSTIN 2021-2030 in creating a science, technology, innovation and economy (STIE) led ecosystem. It will also facilitate local technology development by creating more opportunities within 4IR technologies like AI, IoT and blockchain.
However, to what extent industry players take advantage of these macro-level policies, government assistance and so forth provided to automate remains left to be seen.
Also, migrant worker recruitment agencies are a big business in Malaysia and some people believe that some politicians are involved in these agencies, so it’s hard to say.
Industry associations also have a strong voice. For instance, when in 2018, the Minister of Human Resources at the time wanted restaurant owners to replace their foreign cooks with Malaysian cooks by 1 January 2019 but the restaurant owners’ associations objected, arguing that they would have to pay Malaysian cooks like RM6,000 per month compared to RM3,000 for a foreign Bangladeshi or Indian cook and the minister finally backed down.
Also, since the May 2018 general election, we have had three different governments in just over three years and with such frequent changes of government, it’s hard to say whether successive governments will continue with the policies of the previous government, and if so, how faithfully they will implement them.
DOEKA-AH: I believe they need to go for automation. With competitors, or competitor countries, like in China for example, if Malaysia and the glove industry, don’t move to automation, more gloves will be produced in China in the future and it will be cheaper to make gloves there than in Malaysia in terms of labour costs. So with automation, you don’t need to depend on manual labour.
EnterpriseTV: I had shared with Daryl some of our earlier articles about this and one of the more recent articles mentions that China and Thailand are increasing the area of land used to grow rubber to produce latex and at the same time are increasing their number of rubber glove makers.
For example, I understand that a leading Malaysian glove maker has rubber plantations in southern Thailand which supplies latex to their factories in Malaysia.
I also understand from a source within the rubber gloves industry whose identity I cannot reveal, that there are about 30 large rubber glove makers in Asia, including Malaysia which are automating, so the large Malaysian glove makers are under pressure to automate to remain competitive.
However, whilst these ‘big boys’ are willing to automate, how many of the mid-sized and small glove manufacturers are ready and willing to embrace automation?
DOEKA-AH: We also have had some good inquiries and projects with smaller companies as well. Of course, first we are focused on the big glove players, but we have also found level-two glove players which are more interested in automation and are more modern thinking in some ways.
EnterpriseTV: From your company’s website, it looks like DOEKA is a father and son company, with Karl Hummel as DOEKA Group President, is that correct?
DOEKA-AH: Yes. It is a father and son company and my father is is turning 83 tomorrow. We have expanded from the beginning internationally, and we have been in Malaysia since the early 1980s, firstly with production machines and also glove lines.
EnterpriseTV: Happy Birthday to your father, and many more to come.
DOEKA-AH: Both Daryl and myself are experts in ISO 4074 (which specifies requirements and test methods for male condoms made from natural rubber latex) and ISO/TC 157 (standardisation of non-systemic contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections (STI) barrier prophylactics) and we have been Malaysian delegates at several ISO/TC 157 quality meetings in Malaysia and worldwide.
EnterpriseTV: In your earlier e-mail replies to my questions, you wrote that condom makers are more aware or more ahead in automation than glove makers. Why is this?
DOEKA-AH: I believe that it is because the condom makers are top international companies such as Durex (a brand owned by Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC) in the U.K. Labour costs in Europe are high, so they had to invest in automation from the beginning.
Manufacture of Durex condoms ended in 2007 and production has now since moved to China, India and Thailand, as well as under contract by a Malaysian condom maker.
Another is the LifeStyles brand of condoms originally produced by Ansell in Australia. In 2017, Ansell’s Sexual Wellness division was sold to LifeStyles Healthcare, established by a China-based consortium of Humanwell Healthcare & CITIC Capital private equity.
These manufacturers are multinationals, with an international management outlook, so they readily adopt automation.
On the other hand, a leading condom maker in Malaysia still relies very much upon migrant labour, and whilst they are moving towards automating their production processes, however they have found that it is not so easy to do so.
EnterpriseTV: Why do you say Malaysian condom makers find it not so easy to automate when it’s no problem for multinational manufacturers?
DOEKA-AH: Condoms and gloves are flexible products, so to automate their production, they need to be very stable without too much variation and are similar-looking, then the production machine can be adjusted accordingly and then run.
However, in the product has too much variation in terms of shape, form, thickness, powdered, powder-free and so forth, then it is difficult for the automated system to handle, and this is the most challenging part.
EnterpriseTV: Gloves generally come in five sizes – namely extra small, small, medium, large and extra large, as well as standard and long lengths. Can your machines handle that?
DOEKA-AH: Size is no problem for our machines.
EnterpriseTV: How about when say a batch of 100 small sized gloves come down the production line, followed by a batch of 200 extra-large sized gloves, can your machines recognise the different sizes and pack them accordingly?
DOEKA-AH: That’s not an issue, our machines can handle that.
Most importantly, the the glove manufacturer and machine supplier must work together as partners. For instance, the manufacturer cannot blame on the machine supplier if the problem is coming from the dipping line, but instead must work together to find a solution.
Also, some manufacturers want to go from zero automation today to full automation tomorrow which cannot work. Instead their automation journey should be step by step and they will gain experience along the way.
EnterpriseTV: How many customers does DOEKA have in Malaysia altogether?
DOEKA-DK: About 20 to 30 big and small in all industries in Malaysia, not just condoms and gloves.
DOEKA-AH: We have many more customers outside Malaysia, including in Thailand and other countries. Some of them have semi-automated machines, which they can later upgrade to fully automated, step by step.
EnterpriseTV: What would be the, the minimum company size that that would benefit by being your customer?
DOEKA-AH: It does not depend on company size. For instance, we have customers in Germany which are not so big manpower wise, such as with 50 staff altogether, including about 15 who are production staff, supported by automation, whilst customers in Malaysia and other parts of Asia have around 500 staff, which is about 10 times more staff for the same output.
Although the costs in Germany are higher, I believe the margin of profit from them are higher too, than companies in the company in Malaysia with the same output but more manpower. So it’s not a question of size but of output and also of automation.
EnterpriseTV: In terms of output, what would be the minimum output per annum for a manufacturer to benefit from automation using your equipment?
DOEKA-AH: For condom manufacturers, I would say from 100 to 200 million condoms per annum. As for gloves, what do you say Daryl?
DOEKA-DK: For gloves, we would recommend they should have at least six to eight dipping lines.
EnterpriseTV: How about for small, own-brand glove re-packers such as my friend who has four workers who manually pack gloves obtained in bulk from tier-one manufacturers into boxes and cartons under his own brand name ?
DOEKA-DK: We would recommend they use our semi-automatic machines.
DOEKA-AH: I think our meeting is ending now. It was good talking to you. Maybe you can get back to us.
EnterpriseTV: I think I’ve really most of my questions.
Danke. Good day Mr. Hummel, good evening Mr. Kok. It was great talking with you too.
Hopefully we can meet in person after this COVID-19 pandemic is finally over as the Spanish Flu eventually did. Well hopefully.