PENANG, MALAYSIA — With its new state-of-the-art oat mill in Malaysia, Federal Oats Mills (FOM) is positioned to meet the ever-growing needs of the plant-based beverage and meat industries. 

That was a key factor in deciding to build the new facility in Penang Science Park in Penang, Malaysia. Overall, the demand for oats has expanded significantly in the last 15 years, and FOM needed more capacity than was available at its original mill in Butterworth, Penang. That facility, built in 1965, had a capacity of 5 tonnes per hour (tph). 

Completed in 2020 after 24 months of building and installation, the new mill has a production capacity of 10 tph and can be expanded to 25 tph. 

The facility features a total floor area of more than 260,000 square feet and produces various oat products such as oat flakes, kilned dried hulled oats, oat bran and oat flour. Integrated packing lines pack products in everything from a 40-gram sachet to a 1-tonne bulk bag for retail, foodservice, and food and beverage manufacturers. 

“We envision FOM to be the leading oats brand in Asia and the Middle East through our Captain Oats range of products, the preferred partner for private labels and the No. 1 choice for plant-based food and beverage manufacturers,” said Michael Chew, deputy managing director of FOM. “We may not be the biggest oats mill around but I’m confident that our diversified portfolio and service through over 50 years of expertise will make FOM a major player in the oat market in the future.”

A history in oats

FOM was founded in 1965 by the late Chew Choo Han (Michael Chew’s grandfather) as part of his plan to expand the family’s biscuit and flour businesses. He had a hunch that producing oatmeal was a potential business opportunity.

During British colonial rule, Malaysians were exposed to oatmeal porridge. Post-war, they became aware of the health benefits of oatmeal as a natural supplement for heart health due to its high beta-glucan content.

The mill’s initial location in Butterworth provided a skilled workforce pool, robust supply chain, strong infrastructure and government support. Shortly after its initial startup, FOM created its Captain Oats brand, which was exported successfully to the Middle East in the 1970s. Exports gradually expanded across Asia and Africa, with its products now available on supermarket shelves in more than 30 countries. 

Originally, the mill had a capacity of 1.5 tph but it underwent numerous upgrades through the years until the capacity reached 5 tph.

But FOM quickly outgrew the facility and opted to construct a new mill in collaboration with Uzwil, Switzerland-based Bühler. FOM had worked with the company before on several milling projects. 

“Bühler is an expert in this field, and we benefited from their technical know-how and open platform where we got to engage their experts from Uzwil, Switzerland, to design and build the oats mill,” FOM said. “With Bühler’s plant design, we are ready to meet future demand for oats through additional product streams within our plant or through expansion of our existing capacity.”

Given the wide scope of the project, a main challenge was the coordination among various stakeholders, such as architects, civil engineers, contractors and machine suppliers, in different phases of the project. 

“We appreciate Bühler’s professionalism and holistic support throughout the different phases of the project,” FOM said. 

State-of-the-art processing 

The seven-floor milling process includes cleaning, dehulling, kilning, cutting, steaming, flaking and packing. 

FOM imports raw oats in containers that go through security and cleanliness checking before the tipping process. To meet the diverse demands from its customers, FOM works closely with a select group of Australian oat suppliers for the highest quality oats. It also ensures that the oats are sustainably farmed and certified in keeping in line with the global drive toward sustainability and traceability, FOM said. 

Raw oats are transferred to the pre-cleaning process before they are stored in the silos. FOM has more than 16,000 tonnes of storage capacity. The raw oats go through TAS (a high-capacity pre-cleaning machine), Sortex A with SmartEject technology to detect and remove impurities, destoner and intended separators in the cleaning process. All coarse and light impurities are removed.

Next, the cleaned oats are dehulled, separating the hulls from groats. All oat groats then go through the kilning process or hydrothermal treatment. In this stage, an enzyme in the groats is deactivated to ensure a high level of food safety compliance.

The kilned oats are cut according to the specifications of instant oats and quick cooking oats. Rolled oats bypass the cutting process. The cut groats or whole groats go through a streaming process where the groats’ structure is strengthened for the flaking process. At the same time, the streaming process adds to the food safety assurance.

Steamed groats are rolled into flakes with the desired thickness. Quality checks are done at this stage to ensure the flakes are meeting the specifications.

FOM has several packing lines for different packing formats such as pouch, sachet, jar, tin can and industrial bag. The packing and storage processes are supported by an ERP system to comply with traceability requirements. The mill is certified by global food authorities (MS 1480, ISO 22000, FSSC 22000), Halal certified and non-GMO certified. 

Automated packing lines can pack oat products in consumer pouches, tin cans and reusable jars ranging from 40 grams to 2 kg. FOM can also pack 25-kg bags and 1-tonne bulk bags for industrial users. 

Growth of oats

The facility has allowed FOM to broaden its supply toward the plant-based beverage and meat industries, where it has seen tremendous growth in recent years. It also increased automation within FOM’s operations and provided better control of the entire oat milling process.

All aspects of the facility — the production building, grain intake and grain storage silos — were designed and built for future expansion of the mill. FOM said it frequently reviews development of the oats market and evaluates the opportunities for further expansion. 

Oats have increased in popularity as society seeks a healthier lifestyle and diets. Oats are one of the most nutritious grains with multiple health benefits. Additionally, they are versatile in food and beverage preparations and one of the main drivers of the current plant-based trend globally, FOM said. 

“We believe that the oats segment will continue to grow in line with the positive trajectory of the plant-based trend,” it said.