BY: Chronic Staff | Recent News | January 05, 2022
What are the most important things to consider when evaluating your post-harvest processing protocol over the past year & planning for next year?
The three areas you need to consider carefully are quality control, efficiency, and changes in the market. It’s not just about looking at the equipment, but also about looking into the future in terms of your decision-making. Are you primed for a huge expansion, or are you hanging on in a tough market?
In either scenario, getting the highest quality product to market as fast as possible is the name of the game. With competition becoming stiffer and margins thinner now is a great time to assess how you’re going to position your business in the coming year.
Mitigating contamination risks, protecting terpene integrity by safeguarding the delicate and all-important trichomes, and assuring your flower has the desirable, consumer-friendly look you’re going for is key, especially if your target market is top-shelf craft flower. The highly competitive landscape demands a high level of quality and you simply have to get your product to market as fast as possible.
When choosing equipment what do you look for?
I would say make sure you’re buying from a company that has been designing and producing equipment specifically for cannabis post-harvest processing, and not one that has simply repurposed a machine that originally had another intended purpose. Cannabis is a unique crop and has to be handled in a very specific way to avoid losing value as you process.
Look for machines where all plant-touching surfaces are surgical-grade 316 stainless steel, that are efficient to use, easily cleanable, quiet, and are gentle on the raw material. People often don’t think about how loud the machines they purchase are until they get them home to their processing facility and they realize their workers can’t hear each other easily. A quiet system allows workers to communicate quickly if need be, adding another level of safety assurance to your processing. Pay attention to the quality of the motor. This is what will have a significant impact on the noise level.
Equipment needs to be easy to assemble and disassemble. The time you spend cleaning is time not spent processing, and time is money, so this is an important consideration. You want to minimize the time your production line is at a standstill due to routine cleaning.
How do you decide if you should automate, and which part of your process to automate first?
With the radical price drops and changing market landscape we’ve seen this past year even in well-established markets, it’s no longer a question of if you should automate a portion of your post-harvest processing, but more a question of which part to automate first. The biggest gains come from automating trimming first, then sorting. With today’s technology, it is absolutely possible to have both efficiency and quality. This wasn’t possible not too long ago. Technology has come a long way in the last 3 -5 years. It’s now possible to program machines for strain-specific processing, ensuring that you get the highest value out of your raw material. The way you would trim Wedding Cake, for example, is different from how you would trim Rainbow Sherbert. Having the ability to customize your process here is huge.
If you’re scaling up, is there an order of expansion that makes sense?
Automating your trimming process first will garner the most gains, then sorting. After that, you want to look at product movement and may want to add conveyors. Once that is all in place, you would look to your specific SKUs to automate as many of the different production streams as possible. If your focus is pre-rolls, you could add an automated solution to this part of your production line, or if you’re producing the currently popular frosted nugs, or cones with kief you would look at automating your extraction process.
If the target market is top-shelf, craft flower, you may decide to machine trim initially and then hand-finish. Machine trimming to 70-80%, and hand-trimming the remaining 20-30% increases efficiency and cuts labor costs, while still maintaining the high-quality look and feel consumers are expecting. This can cut processing costs by one-third to one-half, which amounts to a huge return on investment considering trimming machines typically ROI out within 30 - 60 days of purchase. Those looking to scale from small to medium or medium to large often employ side-by-side automated trimmers to up throughput, simply adding an additional trimmer one at a time as they expand. This approach is a nice way to scale up one machine at a time, keeping costs manageable.
Once you’ve taken care of the trimming, looking at sorting would be the next step. If you are processing multiple types, or grades of product and have more than two SKUs, or are looking to expand your company’s offerings in 2022, mechanized sorting is a must. Beyond gains in efficiency, mechanized sorting enhances quality by minimizing the amount of time your raw material is exposed to an environment where it is difficult to regulate temperature and humidity. Minimizing human touchpoints also significantly reduces the risk of contamination, which can lead to losses that are especially difficult for the smaller operators to absorb.
Sorting quickly and carefully protects the delicate, and highly valuable trichomes, cannabinoids, and terpenes. It can also funnel raw material to multiple processing streams such as grinding/pre-roll production and extraction as fast as possible, keeping your production line humming.
Once sorting is taken care of, you would look at how you are moving product from one processing station to another and at how many employee hours this is costing you. Automating the feeding of machines removes some unpredictability, adds another level of consistency, and provides significant labor cost savings. This allows you to have an employee overseeing the production line but eliminates direct human contact with the product.
How are the big producers automating?
The huge producers cranking out 2000 + pounds per day typically employ a fully integrated, end-to-end, automated system right out of the gate. This means everything is automated from trimming, to sorting, all the way through to packaging. These days systems at this scale are often customized for a particular facility. Raw material goes in one end and the fully packaged shelf-ready product comes out the other.
This approach is especially useful to the large MSOs, where SOPs need to be consistent across facilities. The added benefit here is production line workers and managers are interchangeable between facilities in different states. This makes it easy to shift personnel around. The processing system will look exactly the same whether you’re in California or Oklahoma.