Cannabis growers and manufacturers all across the country are looking for ways to increase efficiency, lower their cost of production and get their product in front of consumers faster. And with a labor shortage wreaking havoc on a wide variety of industries, reducing the amount of manual labor within any operation has never been more critical — and especially since cannabis production lends itself well to add automation systems at nearly every step, from cloning and cultivation processes to harvesting, processing and packaging.
This month, Marijuana Venture looks at five companies manufacturing equipment to help cannabis brands streamline their operations.
If a business is using aeroponics to cultivate cannabis, chances are that they already know a thing or two about the value of automation. But when it comes to aeroponic cloning, the AEtrium 2.1 SmartFarm by AEssenseGrows could teach just about any cultivator something new about streamlining nursery operations.
The SmartFarm is a four-layer, fully automated cloning beast that was made with productivity in mind. Each layer can be configured with 24, 48 or 72 trays, and each square foot delivers more than 100 clones monthly. At full capacity, the 72-tray SmartFarm can fully automate the cuttings from mother plants into 4,536 clones in 10 days.
“You drop in a cutting, turn on the recipe and the system does all of your irrigation, light-cycle timing, managing of pH and monitoring of time, so your plants pop out healthy in 10 days,” says Phil Gibson, vice president of marketing for AEssenseGrows.
Obviously, smaller farms would not need such a high output, but large-scale cultivators and those interested in getting into the nursery business would save countless hours by being able to produce a high number of clones at a competitively low cost.
“There really isn’t much else that a grower is required to do other than lift the tray and take them into the next stage,” Gibson says.
Operators can adjust any aspect of the growing curriculum at any point with pinpoint accuracy.
The SmartFarm uses the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager software, giving operators remote access to controls such as irrigation schedules, lighting controls, nutrient recipes and environmental monitoring from any smartphone or computer. The system also alerts users if any supplies are needed, and all the sensors and environmental tracking data is backed up to the Amazon Web Services cloud.
Cannabis consumers don’t generally expect every pre-roll to be hand-crafted in the same fashion as a Cuban cigar, but they still want joints that are assembled with care and a certain attention to detail.
It’s precisely at this intersection that Canapa’s JuanaOne was engineered to thrive. The JuanaOne is a four-foot-square work center where an operator can weigh, fill and compact up to 500 joints per hour — allowing manufacturers to keep production levels high without sacrificing the craft touch that consumers have come to expect.
The JuanaOne uses the same technology as its pre-roll powerhouse sister, the JuanaRoll, but in a much smaller footprint — about the size of the average office cubicle. It can plug into a common, 120-volt outlet and does not require compressed air to operate. Each JuanaOne unit is equipped with its own bulk canister, a weight cell that ensures pre-rolls are accurately weighed to 0.01 grams to minimize any loss and a compactor that carefully presses plant material into uniform pre-rolled joints.
According to Canapa, the JuanaOne is the cannabis industry’s first high-performance pre-roll workstation that not only automatically weighs, fills and compacts pre-rolls with laser precision, but also allows a single operator to produce thousands of perfect pre-rolls a day with minimal maintenance or error.
Operators simply need to load the cones and let the machine handle all the weighing and compression. Once the cones have been filled, the operator only needs to twist them closed and place them aside for packaging.
The machine is made with 304 stainless steel and features tool-less removable parts for easy cleaning. Its user-friendly display includes a dashboard that shows production statistics and real-time reporting with the touch of a button.
The M Lite is a dry trimmer that is made specifically for craft cannabis.
While many artisan producers are still clutching their scissors, resistant to any consideration of machine trimming, GreenBroz CEO and founder Cullen Raichart makes the compelling argument that his machine can not only produce perfectly manicured flowers faster than any hand trimmer, but it can also be dialed back to 80-90% to let growers hand-trim the last step. In a sense, the final product is both automated and hand-trimmed.
“You’re doing every bit of trimming that you were doing, it’s just that every leaf isn’t coming off from a pair of scissors,” Raichart says. “They get that same quality. It’s indistinguishable.”
The M Lite can trim more than nine pounds of dried flower per hour, cutting back on labor costs or allowing staff to handle other aspects of the business. The small unit is roughly the size of a mini refrigerator. Its simple design allows for easy cleaning and minimal downtime.
When creating the M Lite, Raichart wanted to combine the functionality and ease of cleaning of large, commercial trimmers, while shrinking it down to a personal size. That includes using food-grade materials such as 316 stainless steel for every part of the trimmer that touches cannabis. Raichart says food-grade materials are the standard for all GreenBroz equipment because cannabis is a consumable product and when federal legalization hits, he wants his customers to already be using equipment that is compliant with standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
GreenBroz is a veteran-owned company that sources approximately 95% of its material in the United States, and its machines are 98% recyclable.
Greenhouses have many processes that can be automated, but there may be none more important for cannabis production than a good light deprivation system.
Because cannabis plants flower at a 12-hour light cycle, using light dep allows greenhouse owners to grow additional harvests each year by controlling the light that comes in, supplemented with indoor lighting of course. And when compared to the physical labor and time it takes to “pull tarp” manually, automating a blackout curtain saves hours of employee time that can go elsewhere.
GrowSpan’s Blackout System is available for its Series 500, Series 1000 and Series 2000 greenhouses, and can be easily integrated into existing GrowSpan structures. Each system is designed perfectly to its greenhouse, no matter how customized, and the fully automated system takes only 10 minutes to deploy. Each blackout system can be set to a timer and run from a number of different controller options.
All told, it provides tighter control over the growing environment for a more consistent product.
“It’s going to allow you to do additional cycles throughout the year,” says Robert Steere, territory sales director for GrowSpan. “And you’re obviously not having to manually take this over the top every 12 hours, relying on checking the clock and maybe missing an hour or two versus being able to automate this from your cellphone.”
And according to commercial greenhouse designer Trevor Klock, different areas of a greenhouse can be set to different timing cycles to allow multiple harvests throughout the year.
“You can stagger your harvest so you’re always flowering in one of your zones,” Klock says. “We put a lot of resources into providing as many blackout options as possible for any different application.”
For many operators, filling vape cartridges with oil and attaching mouthpieces can be a painstaking and expensive process, making it a prime task to automate.
Often, employees use syringes to fill them by hand, wasting time heating or cooling the oil to get the right viscosity or stickiness. Then it’s on to the mouthpieces, which again often need to be screwed on or pressed on by hand.
Plus, there’s the worry of ensuring that each cartridge contains the same amount every time.
But where skilled employees can fill a couple hundred cartridges every hour, the automatic and semiautomatic filling machines and mouthpiece solutions from Thomas Duke International use patented technology to increase output to 1,000 or more cartridges every hour, all filled to within 0.02 grams of each other, according to TDI managing director Mike Hogan.
“Accuracy is the most critical thing. Then you want it to be consistent,” Hogan says, also emphasizing the machines’ cleanliness and high throughput.
Hogan is also the vice president of Portland Engineering Inc., TDI’s parent company, and has 30 years’ experience in large process automation. While doing work on an automated CO2 extraction machine for a client, engineers saw the need and opportunity to develop cart-filling machines to handle the next step in the process, resulting in the IZR Industrial Filling Machine, the ACF1 Automatic Filling Machine and the MCF1 Semi-Automatic Filling Machine, as well as the MPM Mouthpiece Fastening Machine (for screw-on mouthpieces), the LFP Low Force Press and the hydraulic TPM Mouthpiece Press.
“We offer whatever is needed in the industry,” Hogan says.
And though the machines may have a higher up-front investment than an employee, Hogan says clients have told him that, depending on the size of the company and the demand for its products, Thomson Duke machines reach a return on investment in just a few months.
“For us, it’s the efficiency in the process,” Hogan says.