May 17, 2021
Is Artificial Intelligence suitable for the Malaysian woodworking industry?
The export value of Malaysian timber-related products is about U$5.4 billion in 2020, from which 48% is wooden furniture. The woodworking industry employs about 140,000 workers, estimated at at least 55% foreign workers (source: MTIB). The industry faces a severe shortage of skilled workers made worse due to the ongoing Covid pandemic; many workers left for their home country in early 2020 and could not return.
This situation is unlikely to improve since Malaysia’s growing negative sentiment against foreign workers due to the relative high Covid infection rate. The solution for Malaysian companies is to look into “smart manufacturing” by automating a large part of their current manual transactions. Many local manufacturers have already invested in new machines where the focus tends to be on more accurate and faster devices but less on using artificial intelligence. Most furniture factories still employ hundreds of workers to process each component, such as grading, defect-repair, sanding, etc. Such labour intensive transactions can be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI); however, most AI seems to be limited to the “wood-eye” technology installed in optimising machines before finger-jointing lines.
Today’s AI goes far beyond this application; the new AI technology allows to obtain data from various human transactions, which is then analysed and processed by an AI data platform that automatically updates and improves any further transactions. This process will lead to a reduced workforce, less human error, and increased output. It will allow manufacturers to become more flexible and process small scale batches rather than the mass production we see today in our industry.
Foremost, AI investments require a change of mindset by the factory owners; they need to understand that AI is the only way to survive in this very competitive industry. It requires a similar attitude from the Malaysian government. It is great to see that the newly appointed CEO of the Malaysian Timber Council has taken the lead recently in talking to various local universities to see how they can train more engineers to bring benefits to the Malaysian woodworking industry.