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CAN MALAYSIA’S GLOVE MAKERS REPLACE MANUAL LABOUR WITH AUTOMATION? (PART 2)

CAN MALAYSIA’S GLOVE MAKERS REPLACE MANUAL LABOUR WITH AUTOMATION? (PART 2)
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By Charles F Moreira, Editor

This is a continuation article. Part 1 can be read HERE

Packing of gloves

Once the batch is passed by QA, examination gloves which are ambidextrous are packed into boxes, usually 100 pieces per box and 10 boxes per carton, whilst surgical gloves need to be cuffed – i.e. have the part which covers the wrist turned inside out and are packed in left and right handed pairs into inner wallets, which in turn are individually packed into outer wallets which are sealed.

From the various corporate and personal videos I have seen on You Tube, some of which were posted in early to mid-2010s, the glove packing operations are highly manual, with large numbers of workers manually stacking the examination gloves and packing them into boxes and cartons, whilst workers wearing gowns, hair caps, face shields and gloves manually cuff and pack pairs of surgical gloves into inner and outer wallets in a cleanroom.

At the same time I have seen videos of several machines which pack gloves automatically. One of these videos which Germany-based Doeka Industrial Automation posted in 2012, shows a rotating machine with examination gloves which are automatically picked up and put into boxes.

A more recent video also posted by Doeka in 2020 shows examination gloves being carried by a long conveyor belt and being automatically put into boxes at several points towards the end.

Very impressive was a video posted in December 2018 by Italy-based Vuototecnica showing industrial robots fitted with the company’s customised Octopus vacuum head picking up examination gloves from a conveyor belt and placing them onto a device in alternate positions and the device automatically folds and stacks them in an interleaved fashion similar to tissues in a box. Instead of gloves which are stacked one on to of another an put into a box, this form of interleaved stacking results in the next glove being draw partially out of the box ready to be pulled out the next time, much like tissues.

Without providing much detail, also amongst its innovations in production, Hartalega says on its website that it is, “First to develop GoodPacTM – a smart packing system to ensure single glove dispensing, which prevents glove wastage and contamination”, with an image of a pair of fingers pulling a glove out of a just like a tissue.

Most impressive was a video posted in December 2020 by Malacca-based AFA Technologies as part of its 2020 showcase which a fully automated end-of-line packing solution where collaborative-robots automatically pick up examination gloves from the conveyor belt with vacuum heads and stacks them on top of each other precisely and to the exact quantity.

The stack of gloves is then automatically moved to a machine which automatically loads, tucks and inserts them into boxes.

Meanwhile, a robotic carton erector automatically picks the flattened cartons and erects them into cartons and seals their bottoms as they travel down the line to an articulated robot with a vacuum head which automatically picks up the boxes and puts them into the cartons.

The boxes then move down the line where they are automatically closed and sealed with tape, them travel downline to the sorting conveyor to a Vision camera with optical character recognition (OCR) and bar code reading capabilities, after which the cartons travel further down the sorting conveyor where they are sorted according to the customer’s specific need, such as by customer base, by country or stock-keeping unit (SKU).

At the end of the sorting conveyor, a robot fitted with a vacuum head picks up the cartons and places them on a palette sitting on top of an autonomous mobile robot.

 The autonomous mobile robot then automatically takes them to their destination such as the warehouse or to logistic for delivery to their customers. It has sensors which detect movement and obstacles in its way.

The AFA Cloud provides a one-stop platform by allowing all stakeholders to remotely visualise, monitor and control, which offers data-driven decisions in the manufacturing process.

AFA Technologies calls its robots “collaborative robots”, meaning that they collaborate with human workers but in the video, humans only performed functions such as to change the vacuum heads on robots but were not directly involved in the packing, cartoning, palletising and moving of the examination gloves within the plant.

AFA Technologies’ FMS 2021B surgical glove inner wallet packaging machine packs surgical gloves into paper or high-density poly ethylene film inner wallets automatically, automatically prints  information on them and automatically stacks the wallets.

However one operation – i.e. the surgical gloves are cuffed manually for the machine to pack into wallets automatically.

Looking forward, AFA Technologies look towards ultimately enabling “darkroom operations” – an automation industry term for production lines which can run autonomously without human involvement – an ultimate aim of Industry 4.0 generation industrial automation.

Meanwhile, a video posted by Top Glove in October 2020 showed that its Group Engineering Department was instrumental in building new production lines, providing electrical power to its factories,  caring for its resources, continues to explore the frontiers of renewable energy to power its facilities more sustainably, as well as optimising its systems, progress towards Industry 4.0 generation automation such as precision storage in its warehouses using robotic forklifts, robotic packing, as well as skills development of its personnel.

Back to our original question

So the means to fully automate the medical gloves production process end-to-end to a highly advanced level are already available, and Malaysia’s leading glove industry players are aware of this and have embraced these technologies to an extent, so why then does the industry, including leading players still have to rely on thousands of manual workers, especially migrants?

Breakthrough

Fortunately, we found an authoritative source with Malaysia’s rubber gloves industry who provided us with some valuable insights into the workings of the industry.

“Firstly, whilst people say that Malaysia’s rubber glove industry hires too many manual workers, however despite the huge increase in the number of gloves produced recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however the number of manual workers employed has hardly increased since 2013, thanks to the adoption of automation”, said our source whose identity we are not at liberty to disclose.

Malaysia’s glove makers know that they need to automate to remain competitive and have been implementing greater levels of automation each year. There are over 30 conglomerates in Malaysia, China and Thailand have the finances to invest in automation technologies, management technologies and to manage the health of their employees, so the competition is fierce.

Already, over 85% of Malaysia glove production is automated and the level of of automation is increasing each year. Already automated stripping and packaging have already been implemented in some newer factories, our source pointed out.

However, it has not yet been possible to automate certain operations such as the cuffing of surgical gloves. Unlike rigid items such as semiconductor chips, circuit boards and so forth which have a definite and predictable shape, rubber gloves are soft and floppy, which makes it more difficult to develop machines which can automate their cuffing, hence the continued need to do this manually.

The process of automation of Malaysia’s gloves makers began about 10 to 20 years ago, when glove makers were not as rich as they are today, so they had to tailor their factory floor space within the size of land they could afford, and these existing factories do not have enough floor space to accommodate new automated lines and equipment. Also, with the adoption of those huge automated dipping lines, the owners will want to protect their investment over its planned lifetime.

Whilst a householder can buy a robotic vacuum cleaner and automate the cleaning of his house from the moment he returns home, however the adoption of industrial automation cannot be implemented overnight but is an ongoing journey, which requires the planning of new structures, training and implementation.

“However today, glove makers have made enough money be able to hundreds of acres of land on which to build new factories with the most advanced automated production equipment and technology” said our source.

“Also some jobs, such as the cleaning of tanks cannot be automated yet, so they still require human labour, and with 25% of medical gloves made in Malaysia being surgical gloves, they still require manual labour to fold the cuffs before they can be packed in pairs per wallet, and with QA requirements getting more strict, more human labour is required.

“So achieving 95% automation is still impossible and most QA functions still cannot be automated”, our source added.

New versus Legacy players

In response to the worldwide surge in demand for medical rubber gloves, new originally non-glove players are entering the glove production business.

As has been so with early adopters of computing and information systems, new adopters 10 or 20 years later usually adopt state of the art systems, whilst the early adopters have to make do with legacy systems which they cannot rip out and replace with the latest systems overnight.

For instance, in a press release dated 21 October 2020 on its website, plastics manufacture and property developer the Mah Sing Group, announced that it would be drawing upon its 40 years experience in plastic manufacturing to diversify into medical rubber glove production.

Mah Sing will install 12 glove production lines at its 228.800 sq ft factory in Kapar, Klang, with six lines scheduled to be ready for production in Q2 2021, with the remaining six being ready in Q3 2021. Altogether these 12 lines are expected to produce 3.68 billion gloves annually, mostly for export. The company plans to eventually have up to 100 glove production lines, depending upon market demand.

The press release quoted its Founder and Group Managing Director, Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Leong Hoy Kum as saying, “Our first glove factory ready, and is ultra-long to accommodate modern, high speed machines which can run at a speed of 38,000 pieces of gloves per production line per hour. The factory also has a suitable roof height to house these mega machines.” However, the press release does not reveal how state-of-the-art the production lines at Mah Sing will be.

Anyway, if not Mah Sing, perhaps some of the other new entrants will go for state-of-the-art production lines and processes and legacy players will be upgrading as they go along.

Rome was not built in a day, so the advanced automation journey, including towards Industry 4.0 generation continues.

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