Shaun Madho, who is the head of Factory Support and leads areas of consulting, training, technology transfer and factory performance figures management at South Africa’s Sugar Milling Research Institute NPC (SMRI) based in Durban, writes for Shukela on the readiness of the country’s sugar factories to adapt to the modern tech-savvy age or, as it is more commonly known, the fourth industrial revolution, in order to find solutions to age-old problems.  He asks whether or not the country’s sugar factories are ready to embrace ubiquitous and mobile supercomputing, the internet of things, system integrations and big data and analytics? Or, he asks, are they to continue filling out chalkboards and analysing performance reports by line, armed with a sharpened pencil and a ruler?  

A quick look around sugar mills will tell you that we are indeed ready for change. Decision-makers at the mills are mostly tech-savvy Generation Y’ers (born 1977-1994), while hot on their heels are Generation Z’ers (born 1995-2014) who are already being employed as operational staff and managers-in-training. 

And when asked about how they and their needs differ from the traditional sugar technologists, these Y and Z’ers responded as follows: 

  • We are certainly less resistant to change. New technologies are being developed at Mach-speed, yes, but they are also becoming outdated at an equally rapid pace. Growing up with these developments we have become used to change and are ever willing to adopt new ideas.  
  • Real-time information please. At our fingertips. If possible to program and control our equipment as well. Just more information in general and available quickly.” 
  • Social media has made us more open to constant communication and sharing of information. Holding on to precious information? No, we want to share our knowledge with as many people as possible in the hope that we acquire new knowledge in the process.  

These responses are relevant as we move to best utilise the skills available to address current challenges in the sugar industry.  

South African sugar technologists are generally well regarded as some of the best in the global sugar industry.  Many of these technologists have spent their entire working lives in the industry, have accumulated significant knowledge and expertise, and are now either retired or nearing retirement age.  

It is imperative then that their knowledge and expertise is made available in new ways for the next generation to improve the recoveries and profitability of the industry. 

At present there is a lot of interest by milling companies to “get back to basics” with general operations and troubleshooting to find root causes of problem areas , and it is widely acknowledged that this is an area that the SMRI can influence and where the institute ought to be proactive.

In order to do so, the SMRI has adopted an approach that is both relevant to the times and will address some of the long-standing sugar technology issues.

These are some of the initiatives already in place or planned for development:  

  • As an enhancement to existing routine factory control procedures there is the roll-out of SMRI-NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy) prediction equations to mill laboratories for the rapid prediction of sucrose, fructose, glucose, pol, brix, dry solids, colour and ash in factory streams and products. The NIRS application on factory streams has been carefully developed by the SMRI with thousands of samples included within the prediction equations, to the extent that the technique is sufficiently robust and reproducible enough on factory streams to be able to replace conventional analytical methods. Factories can benefit from the technology by performing more analyses (many not previously possible at mills, e.g. sucrose predictions), more often and without the use of hazardous lead (used for pol analysis – which is now also not required as direct sucrose predictions are available). The technique has already been approved by the Factory Control Advisory Committee (FCAC) and mills are equipped to implement the technology. 
  • Development of SMRI-NIRS decision-making toolkits that provide insights into problem areas. New to factories will be daily data on loss of sucrose across unit operations (due to inversion); reducing sugars, ash and colour profiles on all factory streams (useful for troubleshooting and developing operational strategies); Target Purity Difference (TPD)determinations  on C-molasses (from every centrifugal determined on-demand at the factories, as opposed to a composited sample analysed a week later at the SMRI); pointers to previously difficult-to-detect, unwanted reactions (e.g. Maillard reactions between glucose and amino acids that result in colour formation); and more. The daily information and individual toolkits developed, integrated within the factories’ laboratory information management system, will not only provide results but will highlight problem areas.  
  • Development of a forum-type mobile app, to be used by SMRI Ten-Week Course in Sugar Engineering alumni (of which there are several hundred) to post queries on sugar-related matters. The app uploaded on smart devices will enable queries to be sent from anywhere. Replies are anticipated to be provided by peers and subject-matter experts. The app is to be webinar and podcast friendly and will be used to transfer knowledge from experienced technologists. 
  • Introduction of e-learning programmes to provide convenient and far-reaching knowledge-transfer. 
  • Adding functionality to existing SMRI factory performance data reports to produce intelligent reports that don’t just give data but use algorithms to highlight potential problem areas. 
  • Development of software for mining the SMRI factory figures database to produce dashboards with trends on demand. 
  • Compilation of best practice guidelines for notoriously difficult-to-operate processes and situations. Guidelines are to be widely available on forums that are easily accessible to sugar factory managers e.g. as electronic links when problem areas are identified through intelligent reports. 
  • Development of energy monitoring and benchmarking tools to allow for internal and inter-factory energy use reporting and comparison. Instead of just reporting Steam % Cane as a measure of energy usage, the tools being developed are to use data from various platforms in factories (laboratory systems, control systems and reports) to highlight areas of energy losses. Going forward real-time data analytics should be possible. 

These initiatives by the SMRI are the first steps towards assisting the industry to address the evolving needs of the new look work-force so as to best exploit their talents, while using the captured wisdom of experienced sugar technologists. 

We look forward to the new generation Y and Z technologists continuing the proud tradition of the South African sugar technologists in finding ways to improve performance and also raising the bar by finding new ways to solve old problems using new technologies. 








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