The Case for Automation in the Cannabis Industry
History has shown that if companies fail to innovate when new technology emerges, even household name brands with enormous market share can squander their success if they are blind to anything that could ever unseat them from the top.
Kodak developed digital camera technology in the 1970s but didn’t envision a world where the film market wasn’t dominant. Toys R’ Us failed to adapt to the changing retail landscape, and Amazon became the chief source of online toy sales. Blockbuster famously laughed Netflix out of the room when the now-$149 billion behemoth sought to sell for a measly $50 million.
Brands in the cannabis landscape can also fall victim to this same misstep. New technologies are driving the industry forward, yet many brands are still standing by sub-par processes. Whether due to misplaced beliefs around automation or an unwillingness to invest, cannabis brands could suffer the same fate as many of these bygone-era brands.
The Financial Argument: Automation Reduces Overhead
The financial argument for automation is at the top of the list of motivators for most cannabis businesses. A great example of this is with pre-roll production. For cannabis brands still employing a “dexterous approach” to their pre-roll manufacturing, staying afloat to keep up with demand is a constant battle. Rebel Spirit, currently the number one pre-roll brand in Oregon, was burning through eye-welling amounts of money in labor costs to produce 300,000 pre-rolls per month. With a crew of 22 full-time pre-roll manufacturers, the team at Rebel Spirit quickly realized their process was unsustainable, and they were headed for an economic crisis if they didn’t cut costs.
They were using a knockbox-style unit which they had modified themselves in an attempt to force it to fit their needs. But this “semi-automated” solution simply wasn’t working. Rebel Spirit then turned to our team at RollPros to clean up and fully automate their production process, helping them to create quality pre-roll at scale with a fraction of the labor costs. (We are the Vancouver, WA-based designer and manufacturer of the Blackbird automated joint rolling system.) For them, it wasn’t a matter of greed, as some opponents of automation sometimes claim; it was simply a choice of going out of business or not. In competitive markets like the Beaver State, where every dollar counts, the case for automation was a no-brainer.
The Remote Argument: Automation Reduces Risk Of Human Error
It’s a basic concept: the more human interaction in your processes, the more risk for error. We, as flawed humans, are simply not capable of being as precise or consistent in our work as a machine can be. Consider the cultivation process. Most experienced cultivators will tell you that growing cannabis is easy, but growing quality cannabis is very difficult, with a lot that can go wrong.
Enter one of the most valuable automation tools for cannabis cultivators – automated irrigation systems. With your irrigation systems and nutrients on autopilot, cultivators can ensure plants get the ideal mix of nutrients regardless of whether you are on-site, remote or facing a staffing crunch. Sensors can provide real-time data so that water, nutrients or even light can be adjusted as needed. In many cases, even these adjustments can be automated. (Think AI hasn’t entered the cannabis space yet? Think again!) Sure, there is always a potential for issues no matter how advanced a system you use. But when you compare this to a farmer using a manual watering and nutrient system, there are far fewer opportunities for mistakes. Does a human feel the difference between .94 gallons of water and 1 gallon of water? No. But a well-calibrated irrigation system can tell the difference and even alert you if it goes outside of whatever tolerance limits you set.
When the cost of flower is high, human errors that lead to damaged or inferior product are often overlooked. But when flower prices drop as markets mature, success versus failure can be balanced on a knife-edge, and cultivators can’t afford to make mistakes.
The Skynet Argument: Automation Increases Productivity Without Taking Your Job
Whether AI is coming for our jobs or will destroy human creativity as we know it has been argued ad nauseum since the release of AI tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney. The good news? Automating your business doesn’t mean enlisting the T-1000 from Terminator 2 to terminate your 9-to-5. Think of automation as Arnold Schwarzenegger telling you to come with him if you want to live.
The truth is that any task that needs to be completed frequently or on a set schedule is ripe for automation. Automation eliminates tethering your most talented employees to cog-in-the-machine work that wastes their time and abilities. Freeing them up to focus on more high-value tasks like customer service, marketing, or new product development will likely make your business more profitable long term, and make your employees happier with their work.
No industry has been spared from the impacts of industrial automation, says Amar Olgeirsson, CEO and founder of Green Vault Systems, but, “labor is typically not reduced as a result of automation.” Instead, “production is increased, and workers’ value increases because of higher production in terms of units produced per labor time. By increasing worker efficiency, companies and corporations are able to pay their workers a higher salary,” says Olgeirsson.
The Performance Argument: Automation Guarantees Consistent Quality Every Time
Expansion across state lines means consumers know they can buy the same quality product whether they buy it on the East Coast or West Coast. You know that you can buy your favorite Red Blend wine whether you’re in Denver or Atlanta and expect to enjoy the same tasting glass (barring any unintended oxidization). If a customer purchases that same glass of wine, and it doesn’t meet their expectations of what it should be (it’s inconsistent with the last time they had it), a brand is essentially breaking a promise to that customer. When a customer doesn’t get what they want and expect out of a product, they’ll quickly move on to a competitor. Consistency builds loyalty… inconsistency destroys it.
The cannabis industry is notorious for producing inconsistent products. It’s not surprising, considering the near-total ban on state-to-state commerce, (thanks federal government!) And, of course, the variation that can occur from crop to crop, batch to batch or facility to facility. There are so many variables to just the cultivation process; the amount of light a crop gets, the type and dosage of nutrients, the growing medium that’s used, the amount of air flow in the facility… The list goes on, and that’s just the first of many processes needed before a product ends up on shelves! It’s nearly impossible for humans to manually manage and ensure consistency of all these variables without the help of some level of automation.
Nohtal Partansky, ex-NASA-JPL engineer and CEO of Los Angeles-based Sorting Robotics, teamed up with fellow NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory colleagues Cassio Santos and Sean Lawlor to found their firm that creates next-generation hardware and software for cannabis industry producers.
“Automation in the cannabis industry plays a crucial role in maintaining product consistency by reducing human error and standardizing processes across cultivation, extraction, and packaging,” says Partansky. “If brands are going to expand across states, consistency is a requirement if customer loyalty is ever going to be a market driver for sales.”
The Contamination Argument: Automation Limits Human Error & Contamination Risk and Improves Product Safety
Our industry demands very strict safety standards. Our customers deserve safe products, but beyond that, the testing requirements mandated by regulations in most markets are very, very strict. Each and every human touchpoint in your processes carries with it additional contamination risk. Even with stringent protocols, mold, mildew and other unwanted crits can more easily venture their way into final products as the human variable increases.
Automation minimizes these risks and improves the safety of the product for consumers, and reduces the risk of recalls or other regulatory issues. Consider that for many cannabis businesses in hyper-saturated, competitive markets, a significant product recall can be the end of the road. Automating production processes provides a reliable and consistent solution in an industry that demands the highest safety and quality standards.
“The new and burgeoning Cannabis industry and its consumers are no exception and possibly benefit it more than other industries. The medicinal qualities of Cannabis products make consistency, quality, safety, and traceability paramount to the consumer. Cannabis products are most often consumed by ingestion into the lungs which means product cleanliness and quality are essential to safety. Chemically derived oils and extracts would not be possible without automation equipment. Again, industrial automation is a huge benefit to the Cannabis space, to the producers, their employees, and maybe most importantly to the consumer”.
Amar Olgeirsson, CEO & Founder, Green Vault Systems
Olgeirsson’s take on products created on specialized automation equipment? “Products produced on purpose-built machinery are more consistent and of a higher quality which lends itself to better oversight, enhanced traceability, and improved product safety.”
The Physical Argument: Automation Eliminates Tedious & Overhead-Heavy Tasks
In an increasingly competitive marketplace like cannabis, streamlining processes and reducing the liabilities that come with human labor – like being sidelined from Carpal Tunnel – is key. Let’s consider the trimming component of the post-harvest process. Manual trimming is monotonous, low-paying for workers, and an unrealistic way to harvest cannabis at scale. Also, it’s hard to be successful when team-wide prescriptions for night-time wrist splints are a threat.
Leaning into “hand-trimmed” as a differentiator for your brand? Many connoisseurs will argue that hand-trimmed bud is superior because buds stay aesthetic and trichomes aren’t lost. That may have been true in the early days of automated trimming machines, but with today’s crop of super-sophisticated trimming technology, it is now nothing more than a myth. (Yes, myths and misled traditions can be difficult to overcome in our industry, but I digress…)
The Mobius M108S Trimmer, for example, allows operators to reduce the staff required to process thousands of pounds of product every year without compromising quality. It’s next-gen tech not found on traditional trimmers can produce hand-trim quality buds with minimal trichome loss.
When flower prices are high, especially in the case of newly-legalized markets, it can be easy for operators to overlook the cost of trimming, and pay their employees higher wages to offset the physical risks to their bodies. But what about when product prices inevitably fall once the post-legalization honeymoon period wears off? It’s unrealistic (and unethical, I believe), to pay employees minimum wage while putting their health and safety at a significant risk. In the above example, at some point, your operations will grow to a point where hand-trimming will dig you further into a fiscal hole every time you harvest.
The Future Argument: Automation Isn’t Going Away (and Your Competitors Know It)
Automation could cause you to lose people, just not in the way you might think. Ultimately, competitors in any space will invest in new technology to streamline people, processes and tools to establish a competitive advantage. This investment puts them in a better position to attract talented employees that stick around for the long term.
Automation is like a boat motor in the 21st century, and companies that don’t use it are paddling against the current. Sure, you can use a wooden oar, but your competitors know paddling is too much work and will strap a motor to theirs. The truth is that companies that drag their feet out of stubbornness or inability to see how the current situation could ever change will often find their employees jumping ship to go elsewhere.
“I strongly believe that automation not only propels our industry forward but also sets the stage for a more profitable future in cannabis production for those that embrace technology rather than fight it,” says Ryan Hoitt, CEO, developer & founder of Vape Jet in Portland. “I can confidently say that it enables businesses to fine-tune operations, improve product quality, and achieve unmatched consistency.”
Saying that you will eventually be forced to automate sounds harsh, but it’s largely true. As soon as your competitors deploy automated processes, they gain an advantage. If you don’t do the same, it will become more difficult to compete, stay profitable and stay in business.
The Consumer Argument: Automation Provides Consumers More Options
Automation isn’t going away, and it’s certainly not a fad like pogs or planking. Automation drives lower production costs, which means lower-priced products for consumers. This process has been behind the dramatic increases in global living standards and population growth since the birth of the Industrial Revolution and is not likely to change anytime soon.
Automation allows producers to manufacture a broader range of products and focus on providing the consumer with more options. Consumers want to be in control of their purchasing decisions, and companies that deliver variety will be the ones to reap the rewards.
Embrace the Future with Automation
History has shown us time and again that failure to innovate can lead even the most prominent brands to fall victim to their inability, or unbelief, in the necessity to evolve. Automation is a no-brainer in crowded and competitive markets.
No doubt, the future of the cannabis industry will trend toward automation. Businesses embracing it will have a significant advantage over those that do not. Companies that drag their feet in the face of disruptive automation risk resigning to the same fate as those brands that underestimated technology at the expense of their own existence. No industry is immune from disruption, and there will be dynamic entrepreneurs who will come along and see to it. Embrace the change, embrace automation and technology, and you’ll increase your chances of winning in the cannabis industry!