Sarah Ratliff   |   August 02, 2019

Automation is Changing the Cannabis Industry, Be Ready to Change with It

Automated systems and sophisticated machinery are available to improve performance in cultivation, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, and distribution.
Following 20 years in the corporate world—culminating with biotech giant Amgen in Southern California, where she worked in health outcomes—Sarah Ratliff and her husband bought an organic farm on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Today…

It’s no secret the success or failure of cannabis businesses will depend on their willingness and ability to use appropriate technology. This industry is hitting its stride at a time of runaway technological acceleration.

In the current climate, innovation is survival. Automation is likely to remain a core technology for cannabis, and those who don’t embrace it will be left behind.

There’s No Vacation from Automation

In 2018, cannabis industry investments totaled nearly $14 billion. This was four times the level of investments in 2016, and an impressive percentage of the money was dedicated to purchasing and installing automated equipment.

Automated plant-tending systems are increasingly common. Ideally, with an indoor grow facility or greenhouse, growers choose an automated system that can monitor and manage lighting, watering, nutrient supply, carbon dioxide pumping, and temperature, with the adaptability to adjust instantaneously.

However, being proactive here may not be enough. The real future in automated cannabis growing may be in hydroponics and aeroponics, which both offer efficiency advantages that greenhouses cannot match.

Seedo, a cannabis company based in Israel, has developed totally automated, enclosed home grow systems that leverage the advantages of hydroponic methodology. Taking things one step further, they have launched a new project that promises to be the first fully-automated large-scale cannabis farm ever built. The farm will consist of larger versions of their self-contained home growing units, each of which will be large enough to produce 360 lbs. of dried cannabis buds each year. Artificial intelligence and robotics will both be deployed in the project, which is expected to generate $24 million worth of product in its first three years of operation.

This project is experimental but is based on sound growing principles and is likely to be duplicated quickly if it proves successful.

Aeroponics is less familiar than hydroponics, but it may be more efficient. Cannabis plants are grown in a misted-air environment where they can be regularly washed in nutrients and kept warm and moist enough to thrive.

Hydroponics and aeroponics can produce larger, healthier plants with lower inputs of energy and resources. In the future, they may replace conventional greenhouses almost entirely. What is notable about both technologies is that they are virtually synonymous with automation. Only when their inputs and environment are precisely and accurately controlled can they produce at maximum efficiency, which is impossible without customized automation systems that can track everything that happens inside a facility or growing pod in real-time.

Harvesting in agriculture has long made use of machinery. It was bound to happen with cannabis as well, and companies such as Vancouver-based Shearline are already marketing trimmers and buckers that can quickly and efficiently remove buds and flowers from plants once they are ready for harvest. Automated control systems are built into these cannabis-specific harvesting machines, which ensure consistent, high-speed, damage-free performance.

Packaging is another area where the domination of automated systems is assured. Packaging cannabis products swiftly yet safely is a complicated task, which must be performed with great care.

Applied Motion Products, which manufactures motion control systems for a wide variety of factory-based purposes, reports a notable increase in the number of cannabis customers purchasing automated packaging systems. Adapted from existing technologies used in food and consumer goods packaging, smart entrepreneurs are choosing systems that can sort, weigh, fill, cap and seal cannabis products to standards acceptable for the wholesale and retail trades.

On the retail side, technology will mainly be used to make it easier for clients to make purchases and receive deliveries. One interesting proposal for the integration of high technology and automation comes from Eaze, the highly-regarded, online order-and-delivery platform for cannabis purchasers in California and Oregon. Mimicking Amazon, they plan to soon begin experimenting with drone delivery. This method would speed the arrival of medicinal cannabis products to those within flight range of a supply center, adding a touch of high-tech and automation to the retail experience.

The march of automation into cannabis is relentless. It shouldn’t be resisted, however, since it promises to streamline the system by eliminating waste and increasing efficiency at every step of the production and supply line.

Products for automation in cannabis are becoming more readily available all the time. While a reluctance to jump in feet first on expensive machines and computer systems is understandable, over time, their impact on profits will make them great investments.

Advantages of Automation

Moving fast on automation provides a wide variety of benefits to take into consideration.

Embracing automation allows early adopters an advanced familiarity with available options, more time to analyze trends, set up an infrastructure capable of adding or upgrading automated systems in the future, and develop creative ideas on how existing automation systems can be modified or applied in new and unique ways. On the other hand, late adoption likely means playing catch-up indefinitely, to competitors who are perpetually one step ahead.

One tremendous advantage for cannabis entrepreneurs is the fluidity, which still defines the industry. Most businesses in cannabis cultivation, production, or distribution are still growing, always learning and still experimenting. Consequently, implementing automated solutions should be far more constructive than disruptive. It’s a natural move—but also an essential requirement—in an industry where new ideas are greeted with enthusiasm more than trepidation.

No matter how well-trained and diligent employees are, human error remains a factor. Automating operations can reduce this problem dramatically while freeing up staff to perform duties they are best qualified to handle. Automated systems will ensure higher quality control by adding precision to all processes, which in the end will make it easier to satisfy both customers and regulators alike.

A Brave New World

Investing in automation allows for significant improvements in efficiency. Automation saves time, money, and energy, creating an enormous number of advantages.

Smartly chosen and expertly installed automated systems can save storage space, cut operating hours, reduce inputs, keep labor costs controlled, and help meet energy efficiency demands states may eventually place on cannabis cultivators. The government could add new layers of requirements related to environmental impact, worker safety, seed-to-sale tracking, and transparency of business practices, and automated systems are a valuable tool for compliance.

Like always, do the research and create an organized plan before investing in automation. However, from a competitive advantage standpoint, staying in sync with the latest technological developments and investing accordingly will be the only winning strategy. Technology will drive the cannabis industry, and automation will be ubiquitous. You can’t afford to cut corners, because your competitors won’t.

There is no reason to fear this brave new world. Automation will improve efficiency and product quality, and that will ultimately maximize profits for businesses and everyone they employ.

Entrepreneurs in cannabis and automation have a golden opportunity to form a mutually beneficial, synergistic relationship. In a real sense, it’s a partnership, and your choice to be an active participant will pay dividends in both the short and long run.

 

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