Growing Automation Trends in the Cannabis Space By Brett Payne, Chief Operating Officer - MD Packaging Inc.
ith the legalization of cannabis for recreational use put into law last year, demand has outpaced supply and has licenced producers scrambling to scale. Cultivation technologies have advanced significantly with the introduction of automated planting, nutrition delivery and watering and harvesting systems, putting pressure on the LPs to improve capacities and throughput within their packaging operations. What were once very manual operations now have the volumes to justify large-scale, highly automated and complex packaging lines. Cultivating a product versus packaging it however can be two entirely different worlds in terms of the knowledge and skillsets required. There are all kinds of potential pitfalls within packaging automation that can be very devastating and expensive to correct. Working with reputable automation companies can help to mitigate risk and ensure that desired efficiencies are achieved. Many of the experienced automation companies get their knowledge from years of automating CPG companies with a focus on food production. Most of the technologies do cross over to the cannabis industry with small tweaks or modifications, however there are specific handling characteristics of cannabis that do make it quite unique in some respects. Cannabis is susceptible to insects and moulds so product inspection technologies are being adapted to detect these types of foreign matter. One of the most advanced technologies is CIT or Chemical Imaging Technology. The use of new simultaneous frequency metal detection and x-ray systems also ensure that all non-organic foreign contaminants are rejected during packaging. Another example of a technology “tweak” is around weighing systems. Because cannabis is of such high value, we’re also seeing modifications to traditional scaling systems to improve accuracy and ensure all bypassed product is captured in the process. The packaging of dry cannabis has followed pharmaceutical formats like pill bottles/containers. As of late, this includes new flexible packaging alternatives emerging with closures that meet federal requirements. These new formats open a whole new world of automation options that will continue to improve throughputs and performance for LPs. Some extremely unique applications not found in other industries, such as the sale of pre-rolled joints, have led to a new development race of automated solutions. The application of filling and twisting pre-rolls is very labour intensive and, in an effort to maintain or decrease costs, automation must be considered. These systems are just starting to emerge. These robotic technologies; which will dispense a paper cone, fill it, scale it, tamp it, twist it and load it into a primary package at 50 pre-rolls per minute; are now available, all in one compact, mobile system. We suspect engineers never imagined this application when they first designed articulating robotic arms. We’ve also seen a massive increase in the production of oils and distillates. Like dry products, many of the current automation technologies will cross over to liquids as well. With product values exceeding that of dry products, improved accuracies during the bottling process can ensure that customers receive the indicated amount while saving LPs significant amounts of product give away (too much product being packaged), which flow directly to their bottom lines. Experienced automation companies also ensure that machinery integration included within a packaging line is done properly, with each piece communicating to each other as well as to operational management. This also includes the physical electrical/mechanical/controls integration, as well as provincial approvals and documentation for electrical and mechanical safety. This can be one of the biggest pitfalls when selecting an automation partner who does not possess the necessary experience. While not specific to packaging automation, customers must also take into account the procurement process. As the cannabis industry is now scaling at an incredible pace, large amounts of money are being spent inside these facilities. When selecting automation partners, deep thought must be put into the procurement process to keep the scope of work clean and concise. Shortcuts as well as lack of planning and experience can result in long-term issues for everyone. Technology is only as good as those who understand their intended use. The eyes of the world are watching Canada, so it is extremely important we get this right and we as an industry, always take the high road.