Automated extraction equipment and technologies are rapidly becoming the standard in the extraction sector of the cannabis industry. Like most evolving industries, manual and operator driven processes are what starts an industry, but with explosive growth, demand for increased safety, efficiency and repeatability grows. Specifically within the cannabis industry, we’re noticing a rising demand for higher quality extracts and a safer, more repeatable environment for cannabinoid extraction. These are all reasons for the industry making a shift towards automated extraction equipment and technologies.
What Automation Looks Like in Cannabis Extraction
Automation in the cannabis industry doesn’t necessarily mean implementing robotics and creating operator-less facilities; It typically refers to automated process control. Traditional, older technologies are manual and operator-driven. This means the equipment operator is in control of all parameters of the process, which leads to inconsistencies throughout the process caused by human error. As the extraction process has many steps: ethanol holding, chilling, extraction agitation, extraction discharge, extraction solvent removal, particle filtration, semi saturated solution storage, and so much more that involves valves, pumps and controls between each piece of the process, it becomes difficult to control such a tedious process manually. When all of these processes are controlled and monitored using proper automation technology, facilities can safely ensure that each batch is run following the same process and parameters accordingly. This is critical for product consistency, a concern for manufacturers and many end-consumers. As the cannabis industry grows, matures and makes its way closer to federal legalization, product safety and consistency become a top-priority for everyone involved.
Greater Quality Control of End-Products
Consistency and repeatability are just as important for cannabis processors as they are for standard food or pharmaceutical processors. Deploying a manual process of equipment operating and monitoring leaves far too much room for human error, and doesn’t provide the level of control needed for the industry as it continues to progress toward stricter product regulations and requirements. On the other hand, an automated extraction process ensures that the same solvent ratios are used batch-to-batch, the same extraction temperatures and recipe parameters are implemented, the same pump and process flow rates are deployed, and all processes are repeatable, predictable and scalable while producing a safe, consistent product.
The benefits of automated extraction are directly tied to establishing greater efficiency in processes. Efficiency can be experienced via less scrap product from unmanaged batches and/or less labor to operate and control the process. Automation means allowing a recipe-driven control system monitor and control the process, eliminating process bottlenecks that have been notorious for destroying productivity in manual extraction operations.
As Cannabis Extraction Processes Become Automated, They Become Safer.
A team is what drives any business forward. The safety of that team needs to be a top priority for any business leader. As cannabis extraction processes become automated, they become safer. With less equipment interaction, the likelihood for human error that could lead to safety hazards significantly decreases. Properly programmed automation can establish advanced system interlocks that check multiple points throughout the process for irregularities, and can halt a machine based on these irregularities it detects. That level of process monitoring and control is only available when automation and PLC logic controls equipment.
Data Collection and Validation
When we tie all the benefits of extraction automation together, it makes for a far more attractive system than traditional,manual processes that we’re used to seeing in the cannabis industry. In addition to the major benefits listed above, automation gives a superior level of data collection for process improvements and process validation which is key in cGMP or EU-GPM facilities. This is the future for every processing facility in the arena of cannabis. As the industry matures, it will continue to become more competitive. Facilities with automation will have the capacity to maximize their process efficiencies, produce a far superior and more consistent end–product and will have a competitive advantage in the extraction sector.
As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:
Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest?
Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
Poor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.
One of the biggest challenges that cultivators, processors and distributors face in doing business is the requirement to track the product at every step in the production process, from seed to sale. When you add the wide range of label sizes and requirements across the supply chain, labeling can feel overwhelming. While business systems such as METRC, BioTrack, MJFreeway and others are key, integrating accurate and secure barcode labeling with those systems will streamline the end-to-end process while meeting traceability requirements. Here are some things to consider, no matter what role in the cannabis supply chain you play.
Cultivation: Where Tracking and Labeling Starts
It’s crucial to implement accurate labeling processes from the beginning, whether growing for a customer or your own vertically integrated operation. The cannabis industry is faced with strict labeling regulations for a variety of cannabis products. Start with a labeling system that can integrate with METRC, BioTrack, MJ Freeway or other seed to sale software solutions. Your barcode labeling solution should also include label approval requirements, so you have role-based access and transparency with label changes and print history in case of issues or recalls. Whatever cannabis labeling regulations your business faces, label design software helps you create compliant cannabis labels throughout the supply chain, from grower to consumer.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Labeling
Select regulations require growers to leverage RFID technology to track the location of the plants in their grow houses. RFID technology also enables accurate real-time inventory analysis and helps reduce manual labor costs, as well as errors that can occur with manual counting. To accurately encode RFID tags with variable plant data, be sure you are using a barcode labeling system that can enable easy RFID tag encoding that integrates data from all your business systems. Fastening RFID tags to plants across your grow house floor enables quick and easy location tracking, and RFID reading removes the need for a manual line of sight and allows hundreds of tags to be read at the same time, speeding up shipping and receiving.
After a plant is cultivated, a certain percentage is sent to a lab to be tested to ensure its proper strain, weight and compound makeup. After your product has been lab tested, leverage the data from your certificate of analysis to accurately display on your cannabis product labels, including:
Pass/fail chemical testing
Final date of testing & packaging
Identification of testing lab
Cannabinoid profile & potency levels
Efficiently display lab testing results on product labels with the use of a QR code for the consumer to review the independent lab’s certificate of analysis
Processing and Production: Tracking and Labeling After the Plant Has Been Harvested
A lot of information needs to go on a cannabis label. Whether you’re producing pre-rolls, packaged flower, edibles, beverages, topicals or cartridges, your labeling software must have the capability to create a wide variety of label sizes with barcodes that encode a large volume of data, while also being fully compliant and showing consumer appeal.
Your cannabis labeling software should do the following for you:
Support database integration to populate variable data from METRC, BioTrack, and other systems
Import high-resolution artwork and leverage with dynamic barcodes and variable data
Contain barcode creation wizards for 1D & 2D barcodes
Automate weigh & print
RGB/CMYK color matching
Feature secure label approval processes, label change tracking and print history
Offer WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) printing
Automatically trigger printing directly from scales and scanners when cannabis is weighed
Integrate labeling with your seed to sale software solution to automatically trigger label printing by an action in your seed to sale system or by monitoring a database. By integrating your label printing system with your seed to sale traceability system, you can expect to minimize errors, increase print speeds and maximize your ROI. Your business system already holds the variable data such as product names, license number, batch or lot codes, allergens, net quantity, cannabis facts, warning statements and more. By systematically sending this data to the right label template at the right time, labeling becomes an efficient and cost-effective process.
Distribution: labeling for consumer and industry demands
The ability to manage and distribute inventory efficiently is critical in the cannabis market. Warehouses and distributors need to ensure proper storage, handling and traceability of product, from the warehouse to the truck.
Leverage your labeling software to easily create:
Case & pallet labels
If you use the same data for your documents and labels, consider moving document printing into your label design software for greater efficiency. An advanced label creation and integration software enables label and document printing standardization by allowing multiple database records to be on one file. That means when new documents or labels come into your database, your software can seamlessly integrate.
Dispensaries can benefit from integrated seed to sale labeling for traceability, speed to market
Whether you’re a small outlet or a large dispensary, you benefit from integrated barcode labeling that starts from the beginning of the process. How? When barcode labeling software is integrated with seed to sale software, product is fully traced throughout the entire process, from tagging each plant at cultivation to identifying the consumer at point of sale, and accurately communicating that data back to METRC, BioTrack and other critical systems. Some dispensaries do package raw flower onsite, which many times means manually weighing, recording and entering the weight on the label, which is a time consuming and error-prone process. Integrating weigh and print functionality with barcode software enables dispensaries to use the action of weighing raw flower to automatically trigger the label print job. The variable weight is then accurately and automatically populated on cannabis flower package labels, creating an accurate and efficient on-demand labeling process for dispensaries. With efficient labeling processes, time spent creating, correcting, approving and printing labels will be reduced, getting product on the shelves faster.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.
Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!
Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.
Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?
Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!
Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?
Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.
When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.
Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?
Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.
Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?
Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.
I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on. I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.
Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.
When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.
I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.
So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?
Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?
Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.
Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?
Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”
So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.
Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.
Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?
Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.
I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.
I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.
Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?
Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”
Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?
Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.
Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?
Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.
Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.
Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!
It’s a different world growing cannabis in California- in fact, it’s a completely different experience than it was even four years ago. It can be overwhelming to begin the process, which is where an experienced cultivation consultant can help. This article will highlight 5 factors to keep in mind before you begin growing in California’s regulated recreational market.
Start Up – Costs, needs & endless variables
So you’ve decided to begin a recreational grow, here are the factors to consider before you get started.
Permitting, the necessary pre-cursor to cultivation, can be time- consuming, extremely expensive, and overwhelming. General experience dictates that any grow will take longer than planned and cost way more money than you ever expected or anticipated. Always account for more money and time than you think you need. Working with an experienced consultant can help you plan and account for all the costs and variables you may not have considered, prior to beginning cultivation, in order to ensure your success.
Equipment. When choosing what equipment to use, stick to reputable equipment manufacturers. Don’t just go with the latest high-tech gear because you see it on Instagram being advertised by a big, fancy grow operation. Stick to what you know best. Do your homework and research the equipment as much as possible, prior to purchase. Use equipment that has been tested and well documented with success. Some questions to ask yourself: is this necessary? Is it cost effective? Will it help me reach my goals?
Grow your business slowly and naturally. Getting too big too quick will most likely expose inefficiencies in your operating plan, which will be further compounded when production increases. Don’t sink before you can swim and start out on a massive scale before you have perfected your process.
Cultivation – It pays to design it right the first time
Success begins in the grow room. Never forget that. A properly engineered cultivation plan can be the difference between 3 and 6 harvests per year. Again, it is imperative here to do your homework. A well-thought-out plan can make or break you, and that is where an experienced cultivation consultant can help.
Set realistic expectations. Understand that growing boutique style cannabis is very difficult on a large scale, consistently. Don’t expect to grow perfect cannabis every time – it is unrealistic and can ultimately lead to failure if your financial model depends on it. Growing a plant, while mostly in your control, involves too many variables to rely on a perfect outcome round after round. You can do everything in your power, yet something unexpected can still happen and be detrimental to your yield, and therefore your profit. You must expect and plan for this.
Automating as much of your grow as possible is always a good idea. This will greatly reduce labor costs and more importantly, minimize human error. In some instances, it will even allow you to review data and information remotely, in real time, allowing you to ensure your cultivation site is always running as efficiently as possible, even when you aren’t there.
Processing – Don’t skimp on the process
If you are going to be harvesting cannabis for flower, it is imperative to have a properly built facility for drying, curing and storing your product. You must consider that this building will need to be large enough to house and properly store all of your harvest at once. This can make or break your crop at harvest time. If you don’t have the capacity to handle your harvest properly, it can lead to disastrous issues such as mold or too quick of a cure – conditions which make your cannabis unsellable in the regulated market.
Although costly, if done correctly, you can also design this area to serve as your propagation, trimming, and breeding areas, which will ultimately save on costs in the long run.
Also keep in mind, hand trimmed cannabis will always look more appealing to the consumer than machine trimmed cannabis. However, hand trimming can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and therefore far more costly than machine trimming. These are factors you will need to consider and budget for when deciding how to proceed. If you use a machine, you may save money up front, but will you be able to sell your cannabis at full price?
Distribution – Have a plan
It is a good idea to have a plan for distribution, prior to start up. If you have an agreement with a retail outlet (or contract with a distributor) in writing, you will protect yourself from financial failure. Cannabis will never grow more valuable over time, therefore, you want to have a plan in place for distribution, as soon as the cannabis is harvested and processed. Just as was the case in the black-market days, you never want to hold on to your cannabis for long periods of time.
Do not distribute without agreements in writing! While some oral agreements may be enforceable, it will be extremely costly to litigate. Therefore, you should plan to hire a lawyer beforehand to create fail-proof agreements that will hold up in court, should a distributor not pay you for your product.
Sales – Build your brand, but be realistic
Building your brand is important. And if you don’t produce your own high-quality flower you cannot expect to have a product up to your standards. Your brand will not be successful if you cannot consistently provide consumers with high quality cannabis. Relying on other growers to produce your cannabis for you is risky to your brand. Even if you are a manufacturer, you may not be able to rely on other suppliers to maintain the quality volume you need in order to manufacture your products consistently.
The regulated market in California is new. Therefore you must necessarily account for a great degree of price fluctuations in the market. When creating your budget at the outset, you must account for fluctuations in profit. Knowing when prices are going to be at their lowest can help you avoid having an oversupply of inventory. It can also help you avoid such situations by planning your cultivation/harvest accordingly.
There are both consumer and government influenced market trends that can affect your bottom line. These must be accounted for at the outset.
On the consumer level, you must know what people are buying and how they are consuming. And these factors can change quickly with the introduction of new technology, methods or new devices intended for cannabis consumption. You must stay on top of these trends.
The government regulations can also affect these trends. Products used for cultivation can become banned, i.e. products you once relied on in your cultivation can be found to have contaminants known to cause test failures, even in “approved products.”
Ultimately, all of these factors can make or break your success, and therefore, must be considered, researched and accounted for prior to beginning your cultivation in the regulated market. Working with a consultant with over 20 years of grow experience, and more importantly, extensive experience in large scale cultivation in the regulated market, can help you achieve the success you desire. Cultivation in the regulated market is costly, but working with a consultant can help you cut costs at the outset, and save you from unexpected expenses in the long run.
Since medical cannabis was legalized in Ohio in 2016, companies that cultivate and process medical cannabis, as well as the plants themselves, have been popping up around the state.
Grow Ohio, a dual-licensed Level 1 cultivator and processor, was the first licensed processor in Ohio and the first to successfully bring product to market. From plant material to edibles, tinctures, oils, lotions and capsules, the company seeks to ensure that medical cannabis is cultivated and processed under the same strict standards as any pharmaceutical medication. As first to market, Grow Ohio found themselves navigating a complicated process by themselves.
As their first product was ready to be packaged, Executive Vice President (EVP) Justin Hunt and the team at Grow Ohio were focused on marketing, packaging and distributing their product. With the sheer number of items that required attention, it is easy to see how something like labelling can slip under the radar. With a variety of products and dosages, and the first delivery of the product slated for late April of 2019, Grow Ohio needed a consistent way to ensure their product complied with state law, and also satisfied their own brand standards.
As their April product launch date grew closer, Grow Ohio realized they needed help with executing on Ohio’s labeling requirements for medical cannabis products.
They turned to Adaptive Data Inc., a barcode and labeling systems supplier to provide labels, printers, and software. ADI’s task was to specify the right label materials for their branding and compliance needs and provide software and equipment to print compliance labels on demand. ADI’s proposed solution would slash the waste associated with printing and applying labels and create a lean process.
Compliance labels must contain specific information and must be prominently visible and clearly legible. Containers have to be labeled with details including the specific quantity of product, dosage, THC levels, license #, testing lab name and ID #, and other details. Different sizes and shapes are required for the various packaging form factors.
Due to the large amount of content and a relatively small label area, ADI specified 300 dpi printer resolution so that 4 or 5 point fonts would be legible.
Hunt had all the information needed to comply with state regulations, but didn’t have a way to get that information, properly formatted, onto a finished label at the point of packaging. “It’s all about how you get the data from one source to the other in a way that is easily repeatable,” says Hunt. The solution provides the capability to handle all compliance requirements, for all types of product and all sizes/shapes of labels. The system is designed to minimize key entry of data, a typical source of content errors. All of Grow Ohio’s products contain THC and require the red THC compliance logo. Early on this requirement was met using a separate, hand-applied THC logo label, which was very costly. The labels now include the THC logo, all required compliance data, and the capability to include a 2d barcode.
At the time the products are packaged all compliance information is printed on demand with label printers. As retail expansion continues, the barcode on the plant material compliance label can be used with the POS systems of the dispensaries, to keep their systems fast and accurate.
Until the system is ready to receive data automatically from METRC, the State approved inventory system which tracks all medical cannabis plants and products grown or produced in Ohio, they used user interfaces that reduce the amount of data that is key entered to an absolute minimum. Using drop down lists, date pickers and calculated results, means that Grow Ohio only enters data in 5-10 fields, depending on product line. As the system evolves the next step will be to take data for compliance details automatically from METRC.
As the first to enter the medical marijuana market, Grow Ohio leadership knew that their brand image is as important to their success as the quality of their products. Their logo, color choice, and inclusion of the THC logo had to be consistent in appearance across all products, regardless of production method. They used full color branded product labels and blank labels that have the Grow Ohio and THC logo pre-printed. (Compliance data is added to the blank labels on demand.)
Label Application – Automatic, Semi-automatic and Manual
Grow Ohio packages in metal cans, glass bottles and in boxes. Each packaging type has specific requirements.
Metal Cans: Grow Ohio uses an automated packaging line for plant material in cans. That line includes two automatic apply-only machines (for brand labels). The compliance label is printed and dispensed and placed on the can as it is boxed.
Bottles: Cylindrical containers can be difficult to label. Grow Ohio originally packaged tinctures and oils in glass bottles which were pre-printed with their logo. The printed logo looked nice, but printing on the glass was expensive. This made placing the compliance label on the bottle more difficult, since the logo could not be covered. Positioning and straightness was critical for readability as well as aesthetics. Manual placement was time consuming (15 – 30 seconds per bottle).
Now, bottles are being processed with the help of a semi-automatic print-apply machine. The print-apply machine can label 18-20 bottles per minute.
By using plain bottles and pre-printing the blue Grow Ohio logo and red THC logo on the label, they were able to streamline the process. The semi-automatic print-apply machine adds the compliance data to the label and applies the label to the bottle.
The result is a lower total cost of the product. Plain bottles cost less without the logo and the labor to manually apply the labels has been greatly reduced. In addition, with the logos on the label instead of the bottle, orientation and spacing are no longer an issue. The label maintains the natural brand feel, which was important to Hunt.
Boxes: Only compliance labels are required for boxes as the branding information is pre-printed on the box. Compliance labels for boxes include a pre-printed, red THC logo. The printer prints the compliance data and presents the label with the liner removed, ready to be manually applied to the box.
With a broad product line, Grow Ohio’s label requirements are quite diverse. By specifying and sourcing the right hardware, software and label materials,
Adaptative Data provided an efficient, repeatable, cost-effective way to do brand and compliance labeling for Grow Ohio’s diverse product offering.
Hunt now understands the magnitude of work that goes into coming up with a compliant, cost-friendly compliance labeling approach – an appreciation he did not have at the outset. He is not alone in this regard as many companies come to this understanding late in the start-up process.
Hunt isn’t sure how fast the market will grow, but he is not worried. As the market expands and demand grows, he knows his systems can handle it.
You’re sitting down to dinner at a restaurant about ten minutes from where you work, finally relaxing after a tough day. You’ve set your environmental alerts on your plants; you have that peace of mind that the technology promised and you know that if anything goes wrong you’ll get notified immediately. As you’re looking at the menu, you receive an alert telling you that the temperature in one of your 2,000 square foot grow rooms has gone out of the safe range. Your mind starts to race, “It’s week seven, I’ve got 500 plants one week away from harvest, that’s 200 pounds of cannabis worth about $150,000-$200,000. Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
You’re doing all this at the dinner table and even though you’re not in a state of panic, you are extremely concerned. You need to figure out what’s going on. You check the graphing and see that over the past hour your humidity dropped and your temperature is gradually going up. Within the past ten minutes, the temperature has gone to 90 degrees. Your numbers tell you that the temperature in the room with $200,000 of cannabis is going up about five degrees every three minutes.
“I see this trend and can’t figure it out,” the grower relates. “Normally, the HVAC kicks on and I’d begin to see a downward trend on the graphs. I pre-set my trigger for 90 degrees. But, I’m not seeing that. What I AM seeing is the temperature gradually and consistently getting warmer without the bounce-back that I would expect once the HVAC trigger was hit. All I know is I better find out what’s causing all this and I better find out fast or my entire crop is gone.”
You go through the rest of the checklist from LUNA and you see that the lights are still on. Now, you’re starting to sweat because if the temperature in that room hits 130 and stays there for more than twenty minutes, you’re losing your entire crop. You have to walk in your boss’s office the next day and explain why, after all the time and money you put in over the past seven weeks, not only is all that money gone but so is the $200,000 he is counting on to pay salaries, expenses, and bank loans.
This is something you’ve been working on for seven straight weeks and if you don’t make the right decision, really quickly, when that room hits 130 degrees here’s what happens.
“My equipment starts to fail,” our grower continues. “The crop literally burns as the oils dry up and the crop is worthless. At 130 degrees, my grow lights essentially start to melt. All you can think of is that temperature going up five degrees every three minutes and you’re ten minutes from your facility. I need to leave that restaurant right now, immediately, because even if I get there in ten minutes the temperature is going to be almost 120 degrees while I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what’s wrong.”
You run out to your car and you speed back to the facility. The grow room is now 125 degrees, you have maybe three or four minutes left to figure things out before you flush $200,000 down the drain. The first thing you do is turn off the grow lights because that’s your primary source of heat. Then, you check your HVAC panel and you realize it malfunctioned and shorted out. There’s the problem.
The real toll is the human cost. Once this happens, no grower ever wants to leave and go home or even go to dinner. It’s a horrible toll. It’s the hidden cost we don’t talk about. The grower opens up with his own personal experience.“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,”
“You think about the burden on the person that you bring in to replace you while you’re out of town and then you think about the burden on you if something goes wrong again. And you decide, it’s not worth it. The anxiety, the fear that it will happen again, it’s not worth it. So, you don’t go. I didn’t even see my sister’s new baby for eight months.”
Your desire to see your family, your desire to have a normal life; all of that goes out the window because of your desire to be successful in your job. It outweighs everything.
This is every grower. It’s why many farmers never leave their property. It just becomes a normal way of living. You just repeat it so much that you don’t even think about it. Why go on vacation if your stress level is higher than it is if you’re home. You’re constantly worried about your farm or your facility. The only way to escape it is to not go away at all.
“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,” he tells us. “You don’t realize how stressful a lifestyle you live is until you step back and look at it. Or, if you have an alert system that allows you to pull back. That’s when you realize how difficult your life is. Otherwise, it just seems normal.”
As AI technology expands its footprint into agriculture, there will be more tools to help mediate situations like this; more tools to give you a more normal life. It’s one of the reasons we got into the business in the first place.
The technology portfolio, aimed at larger, commercial-scale growers, is essentially a network of monitors, sensors and controls that give cultivators real-time data on things like temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure and other key factors. The idea of using IoT and hypersensitive monitoring is not new to horticulture, food or agriculture, but this is certainly a very new development for the cannabis growing space.
According to Brad Nattrass, chief executive officer and co-founder of urban-gro, it’s technology like this that’ll help growers control microclimates, helping them make the minor adjustments needed to ultimately improve yield and quality. “As ROI and optimized yields become increasingly important for commercial cultivators, the need for technologies that deliver rich granular data and real-time insights becomes critical,” says Nattrass. “With the ability to comprehensively sense, monitor, and control the microclimates throughout your facility in real-time, cultivators will be able to make proactive decisions to maximize yields.”
One of the more exciting aspects of this platform is the integration of sensors, and controls with automation. With the system monitoring and controlling fertigation, lighting and climate, it can detect when conditions are not ideal, which gives a cultivator valuable insights for directing pest management or HVAC decisions, according to Dan Droller, vice president of corporate development with urban-gro. “As we add more data, for example, adding alerts for when temperatures falls or humidity spikes can tell a grower to be on the lookout for powdery mildew,” says Droller. “We saw a corner of a bench get hot in the system’s monitoring, based on predefined alerts, which told us a bench fan was broken.” Hooking up a lot of these nodes and sensors with IoT and their platform allows the grower to get real-time monitoring on the entire operation, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Droller says using more and more sensors creates super high-density data, which translates to being able to see a problem quickly and regroup on the fly. “Cannabis growers need to maintain ideal conditions, usually they do that with a handful of sensors right now,” says Droller. “They get peace of mind based on two or three sensors sending data points back. Our technology scales to the plant and bench level, connecting all of the aggregate data in one automated system.”
In the future, urban-gro is anticipating this will lay the groundwork for using artificial intelligence to learn when controls need to be adjusted based on the monitoring. Droller hopes to see the data from environmental conditions mapped with yield and by strain type, which could allow for ultra-precise breeding based on environmental conditions. “As we add more and more data and develop the platform further, we can deliver some elements of AI in the future, with increased controls and more scientific data,” says Droller.
Cannabis testing laboratories around the country are expanding quickly, taking on new clients and growing their business incrementally. Many of these labs are receiving a large number of test requests from growers for potency testing, terpene profiling, pesticide screening, residual solvent screening, heavy metal testing, microbial analysis and even genetic testing. To keep pace with the number of test requests received, efficient data, sample and test management is imperative.
Considering the magnitude of cannabis testing, data management using spreadsheets is a serious impediment to quality assurance. Data being recorded in spreadsheets is error-prone and difficult to manage. Furthermore, using spreadsheets does not allow labs to adhere to regulatory guidelines that demand strict accounting for every gram of the sample, right from reception, consumption for testing, to disposal.
To overcome such data management challenges and improve the operational efficiency of cannabis testing laboratories, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) plays a significant role. LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for managing analytical and operational activities. LIMS enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating the manual data entry. With its built-in audit trail capability, LIMS helps labs adhere to regulatory standards.
LIMS can provide companies with a method to manage samples, records and test results, and ensures regulatory compliance by increasing traceability. LIMS can also be integrated with other lab instrumentation and enterprise systems, enabling easier transmission of information across the lab and the organization, reducing manual efforts and improving decision-making.
Multiple resources are also available to assist labs in preparing for quality assurance and accreditation, LIMS being one of them. LIMS can help cannabis labs with instrument integration, and automate reporting to help improve efficiencies and reduce errors. LIMS, such as CloudLIMS Lite, a cloud-based LIMS, automates cannabis-testing workflows right from sample collection, data recording, managing test chain of custody, sample weight accounting to report generation. With data security and audit trails, a LIMS provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation for highly regulated labs. Above all, cloud-enabled systems are often low in the total cost of acquisition, have maintenance outsourced, and are scalable to help meet the ever-changing business and regulatory compliance needs.
Cloud-based products are secure, easy to deploy and scalable. A cloud product is typically hosted on a server with a guaranteed uptime of 99.5%, allowing for a reliable system, accessible 24×7. Cloud-based LIMS have automatic data backup mechanism that allow for quick turnarounds in case of a server failure or in the eventuality of a natural disaster.
With LIMS in place, cannabis labs can manage sample and requisition-centric records, track sample quantity and location, integrate the test data, and provide online reports to clients. This in turn, reduces the turnaround time for testing and improves the operational efficiency. Besides, audit trail of each and every activity performed by the lab personnel is recorded in the system to ensure that the lab follows regulatory compliance.
Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a poster that was submitted and displayed at this year’s Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon. The authors of the original poster are Arun Apte, Stephen Goldman, Aditi Gade and Shonali Paul.
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