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Refining tastes made easier

Production operator Lim Kwee Liang (left) has benefited from the digital system introduced on the factory floor while new product development manager Derrick Heng finds his job made easier by the firm's enhanced R&D capabilities and online efforts.

THE mission remains the same: delivering flavours customised to clients' needs. But KH Roberts has grown better and more efficient in doing so - as new product development manager Derrick Heng, 33, has seen since joining the firm in 2009.

In earlier years, for instance, he often received project briefs in informal ways. "If we were lucky, we'd get email," he recalls. "Sometimes it would be a phone call."

The information received might be incomplete or unclear, making it "a bit of a struggle" to figure out exactly what the client needed.

In 2011, KH Roberts moved to an online form with specific fields that clients had to fill in - making things much clearer.

The firm also introduced an online system for logging work, so teams can track what has been done and what stage the project is at.

Product development has also grown more sensitive, with Mr Heng's role going beyond technical lab work.

"As KH Roberts operates regionally and flavour requirements are so diverse, something is often lost in translation between the customers and our technical team," he says.

"Over time, my role evolved to bridge that gap, involving a lot of direct communication with our customers, understanding their needs and also presenting what we could do for them."

The firm's enhanced research and development capabilities have also helped. Previously, the product development team might have had to go back and forth with a client "10 or 15 times" - sending a flavour over, getting feedback, refining it, sending it back - while still "not getting it".

Part of this was because the same flavour can manifest differently depending on application: that is, how it is used in different products.

KH Roberts has since developed in-house application capabilities, allowing it to test how a flavour works in a product and adjust it accordingly before sending it to the client.

Mr Heng recalls one client which was developing a mango drink and rejected the initial flavours offered.

The team decided to see how the flavours worked upon application, using one to create different styles of mango drinks. The client liked one of the drinks, not knowing that they had initially rejected the flavour used.

Efficiency gains have been made on the factory floor too. Production operator Lim Kwee Liang, 67, joined the firm in 1996, when it had just 10 staff. For two decades, his job stayed much the same: consulting printed formulae to mix ingredients, while writing down what he had done.

This changed with the new factory in 2017. Work orders are now displayed on screens. Instead of writing down his work, Mr Lim scans each material which he mixes in, with the digital system confirming it is the correct material and logging its use.

As he pours out each one, the screen displays his progress: turning yellow as he nears the required amount, then green as he hits it, and going red if he overshoots.

Getting used to the digital system took a while, he admits: "I was initially not so sure how and whether it would work out."

But with training and practice, Mr Lim got used to the change - and is glad for it. "The best part is that I won't make a mistake (without knowing)," he says. "The accuracy is there."

His load has also been lightened. Previously, he had to manually transfer some liquids from a giant drum into bottles, carrying one to two kilogrammes at a time.

Now, such "bulky materials" and other commonly used ones are dispensed at the touch of a button. Mr Lim estimates that more than half his workload today is automated. "It's really cut down a lot."

Brought to you by The Future Economy Council

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