Cannabis Automation: How to Increase Yield While Lowering Costs
Automation is critical — and inevitable — in the cannabis industry. As multi-state operators grow, they increasingly leverage economies of scale and equipment systems to stay cost-competitive.
The future of cannabis will model conventional horticulture and controlled environment agriculture (CEA); in those sectors, automation touches every aspect of production, from planting to packaging.
When new automation technologies make small, incremental improvements, large agricultural corporations embrace the change and reap long-term financial benefits. In fact, according to Forbes Magazine, com-ag companies will spend $11.2 billion annually on artificial intelligence by the year 2030.
For cannabis companies, advances in automation within the marijuana industry are not incremental: the new technologies are revolutionary. New machines afford cultivators massive payroll reductions and pay-off times measured in months, not years.
So, if you are an operations manager at a large-scale cannabis grow operation, you’re probably asking yourself not if to automate, but what to automate first or what to automate next to meet your production goals.
This post seeks to answer those questions. It shares information about the outcomes you can expect from various agricultural automation systems and reiterates what you need to know about the benefits of cannabis automation.
Why Automate Cannabis Processing?
The old practice of hand watering is a valid analogy explaining why automated processing equipment is crucial to growth. Watering plants by hand may suffice for small cannabis growers but, for large-scale cultivators thinking in hectares, it’s simply not feasible. They need automated forms of irrigation to make their businesses possible.
Likewise, operating a high-production facility is impossible without processing equipment and an updated harvesting technique. Processing equipment — such as trimmers, buckers, and conveyors — take newly harvested plants and convert them into separated and trimmed flowers ready for drying, packaging, or product formulation. Listed below are the principal benefits of automated cannabis processing technology.
Increased Quality & Quality Control
An attentive “hand trim” has always been the quality benchmark for boutique cannabis. But trim crews suffer under high volumes, and attentiveness — the key factor in manual trimming — gives way to fatigue and inconsistency.
Cultivators who implement modern trimming equipment quickly realize the stigma of mechanical trimmers applied only to the machines of yesteryear. Today, mechanical cannabis trimmers deliver a better-quality trim than their human counterparts: close, gentle, and easily controlled with adjustable settings.
A quality trimmer increases yield because it enables you to trim smaller flowers. Small flowers were previously considered by-product material (i.e., “trim”) because trimming them by hand was not cost-effective. That is, small flowers did not add enough weight to the harvest to justify the trimming labor.
Now, the smallest flowers, which would have otherwise become trim in the past, are recaptured and sorted out for suitable products (e.g., pre-rolls, extracts). This generates a significant increase in harvest weight without additional labor.
Reduced Labor Costs
Cannabis trimmers empower a smaller workforce to do more: cultivators who implement automation observe manual labor reductions. Of course, results vary, and calculating your labor efficiency and savings depends on your current processing plan and equipment.
The largest efficiencies come from implementing a trimmer and rounding out your automated workflow with a sorter, mill, and conveyors will lead to further improvements. Other equipment acquisitions primarily increase product quality, quality control, or marketability and make the process less labor-intensive overall.
Automation makes production more predictable and puts fresh products on the shelf with greater consistency.
Moreover, a mechanical sorter helps you sell your harvest more effectively and profitably. When the larger flowers are separated from the smaller ones, they fetch a higher price. And the smaller flowers can go to better use as material for pre-rolls, rosin, or solvent-based extracts.
Benefits to Employees & HR
A mechanical trimmer reduces repetitive strain injuries, improves posture, and stimulates professional development. Employees develop new skills as equipment operators, and they feel valued rather than replaceable. In turn, they are more committed to their jobs and less likely to leave for other entry-level positions.
Automation in the marijuana industry also allows business owners an opportunity to compensate their staff better and employ fewer people. That means they can employ better people. This staffing strategy helps limit the uncertainty and risk of contamination associated with a large staff in the facility.
The Best Cannabis Processing Equipment to Buy First
Every production floor has different opportunity areas and workflow dynamics, making universal recommendations impossible. So, as you consider cannabis processing equipment to scale your cultivation business, make sure to consult with an expert.
Our representatives at Mobius have helped many clients choose post-harvest processing equipment that maximizes their return on investment. They assess what is and is not optimized, and make recommendations that compliment your current equipment while respecting your budget and helping you meet your production goals. When you’re ready, contact a Mobius representative by clicking here.
Identify bottlenecks in your current workflow by asking these questions:
- Which part of your harvesting process causes frequent delays in downstream activities?
- If your staff was freed up by a higher-speed trimmer, where would you redirect their labor? Where would the new bottleneck occur?
- Do you prefer to trim your harvest wet, or do you dry the flowers before trimming?
- Which tasks do staff dislike or perform poorly?
Also, consider these factors:
- Current equipment and configurations
- Are you getting the trim quality you need? Why or why not?
- Which cannabis products are you producing with your harvest? What products — such as rosin — might offer higher margins?
- How much additional time are you spending on staffing and HR to employ large teams?
- How can you minimize handling the product?
A bucker is the first step in the processing workflow. A cannabis plant is run through the machine and the bucker removes the flowers from the stalk so they can be mechanically trimmed.
Buckers are essential for outdoor farms and greenhouse-sized grows, but any cultivator with multiple rooms will find that a bucker pays for itself quickly by reducing labor.
Our stainless steel Mobius MBX Bucker separates flowers from their stems by pulling the stems through a tight hole, thus “popping off” the flowers and collecting them below. The Mobius MBX is unique in that it features an integrated stem chipper to help minimize waste volume and satisfy waste compliance issues.
When you implement a bucker, you can match the speed of your trimmer with just a few employees actively taking down plants.
Cannabis trimmers, otherwise known as bud trimmers, are often the first purchase in the journey to full automation because they garner the greatest efficiency gains.
Expect sizable labor savings when you buy a cannabis trimmer and a payback period measured in months, not years. Again, many companies experience a 75% reduction in processing hours using these advanced trimming methods.
There are two types of trimmers: batch trimmers and throughput trimmers. Batch trimmers operate on a load-unload basis, while throughput trimmers process continually. Continuous processing proves superior for high production volumes and well-staffed facilities.
As noted above, a quality trimmer has a hidden benefit: it increases your yields by preserving more of the smaller flowers that human trimmers would have passed off as untrimable plant material. These smaller flowers take too much additional time to trim to be profitably marketed as loose flower.
But beware of untold maintenance time when purchasing a trimmer! Many manufacturers neglect to consider maintenance tasks and ease of operation when designing trimming machines. The result is machines that are difficult to disassemble and require more frequent cleaning.
The Mobius M108S is the most advanced trimmer available today, capable of processing up to 55 kilograms (120 pounds) per hour. If you’re already using a trimmer, you’ll appreciate the reduced cleaning times and tool-free disassembly of the M108S.
The Mobius trimmer also gives you increased control for both dry trimming and wet trimming, with adjustable blade speed, tumbler speed, vacuum power, and tilt angle. And when you are ready to increase your production capacity, an additional M108S can be run in tandem to more than double your throughput.
Conveyor Systems for Cannabis
Mobius cannabis conveyor systems improve quality control by perfecting the feed rate into the trimmer and optimizing the outfeed workflow.
When a throughput trimmer is fed manually — handful-by-handful — the inconsistent feed rate yields an inconsistent trim. A conveyor helps smooth the feed so all the material has the same residence time inside the tumbler.
An outfeed conveyor creates an assembly-line work area for quality control. As the trimmed flower passes by, employees can inspect and manually snip the “crow’s feet” which are impossible to remove mechanically.
Bud Sorters & Beyond
A cannabis sorter is a final step in post-harvest automation. The main advantage of a sorter relates to product marketability.
Whether your operation is vertically integrated or sells to third parties, dividing your flowers by size with the Mobius M9 Sorter will fetch you higher prices. You can distinguish your premium, top flowers from the lower “smalls” and put both to better use.
Buyers who seek large flowers are less likely to request a lower price because the smaller flowers have been removed. And buyers seeking smaller flowers know they are not overpaying for large flowers they do not want.
With the addition of a sorter, the processing line is fully automated, and subsequent refinements focus on increasing productivity with additional machines of the same model. Cultivators may also automate harvest tasks and deploy conveyors that move the plants to a headhouse station for bucking.
Before You Buy Cannabis Trimmers & Equipment
Talk to an expert about your production goals. An experienced equipment integrator can help you analyze your workspace and standard operating procedures. These analyses are critical before investing in automation equipment — as are your plans to scale and launch new products in the future.
Contact a Mobius representative now
Or if you’re nearing your purchase decision, consider a Mobius VIP experience and live demo at our facility in Las Vegas. We provide travel stipends for hotel and airfare, as well as free airport pickup. See if you qualify: