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The case for automation

Why post-harvest innovation is key to thriving in a competitive market


June 22, 2020
By Cullen Raichart

Topics
Photo: JohnDWilliams /iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

The main focus in the past has been on automation for pre-harvest processes, such as applications designed to make running your grow more efficient and less time-consuming. Automated systems with sensors to control environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, airflow, lighting, irrigation, and even fertilizing systems have been embraced by producers. More recently, however, it has become clear that automated harvesting solutions on the back end of the process are a necessary addition for businesses to survive and thrive in this evolving, highly competitive marketplace.

Market demand
The U.S. combined recreational and medical cannabis market has gone from $6.5 billion in 2016 to a staggering $14 billion in 2019, with projections for 2020 at $22 billion. With the market expanding in all sectors, larger companies are at an advantage, and the competition is only increasing. Operations of all sizes will need to automate either a part, or most of their operations. By employing a level of automation, businesses can hold on to a smaller number of highly-trained employees, saving time, money, and also lessening the risk of product contamination. Margins are tight in the current climate. A product contamination incident caused by human error can cause financial losses that smaller and mid-level producers especially have trouble absorbing.

Time is money
Automating harvesting and post-harvesting processes saves time, which leads to facilities being able to streamline and increase efficiency. The old adage ‘time is money’ holds true here. The faster you can process, the more you can process; and the more efficient your operation, the better your bottom line. The competition is getting stiffer, and as companies have to speed things up to compete they are embracing automation as the answer. Operating overhead can be crippling if you can’t scale at the right time. Scalability is the key to survival in a tightening market, and if you can’t up your productivity by reducing your processing time, you can’t compete.

Size does not matter
Automation will be embraced by businesses at all levels in the industry in the future. Many small operations producing 1,000 to 5,000 kilos per year will employ customizable automation for a portion of their process, and will often use hand-trimming to finish, especially if their focus is craft flower. It is common practice to machine trim 80 to 90 per cent and then hand-finish the remaining 10 to 20 per cent. The mid-size operations producing 500 to 1,000 kilos per month have a need for intelligent tools that provide precision with respect to weighing and packaging. Reducing the number of people needed to operate a facility this size has multiple benefits, such as greater overall efficiency, less risk of human error, and a reduction in the risk of contamination. Large operations often producing thousands of kilos per day will be moving in the direction of automating as many steps in their process as possible. Many industrial-scale cannabis operations are running 24/7 and automation allows them to keep this up.

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Real-time data is your friend
Being able to collect data in real-time is a huge advantage. Tracking exact weights of raw material and processed material, in addition to gathering strain-specific data along the automation chain can help managers make data-driven decisions. Tracking profitability at each step can allow you to divert material with a higher value into a certain area. For example, 30 per cent could go into flower packages, and seven per cent into extraction and so on. After a certain point in the processing stream, waste product generated from processing high-value material can be funneled to extraction. This can help you get the most out of your raw material and maximize profits.

Future of automation
The large, industrial-scale operations producing upwards of 1,000 kilos per day will go in the direction of full-scale, end-to-end automation similar to what we see in the traditional agricultural sector. These large-scale systems can be customized to the specific needs of each facility, taking care of everything from trimming, to sorting, sifting, extraction, and finally packaging, batching, and labeling, while minimizing the number of employees needed for oversight. Over time, these systems will become more sophisticated employing artificial intelligence (AI) and cutting edge, smart technology to propel production into the future. In a few years’ time it will look nothing like it looks today. It will be a whole new world. Raw material will go in one end, information will be collected at each step in the process, and the finished product will come out the other end. The production facility of the past will start to look more like a sci-fi version of a cannabis production line.


Cullen Raichart t is the founder and CEO of GreenBroz, Inc., with more than 12 years experience as an entrepreneur and inventor in the cannabis industry. A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, Cullen is considered a distinguished inventor whose drive has earned him a reputation as a pioneer in automation in the emerging agricultural cannabis industry.