“Many companies are ahead of the curve right now, they already have automation, but the ones that are kind of sitting on the fence right now, they’re the ones that could be hardest hit by this.”
Coronavirus has not yet peaked in North America. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases chief, didn’t mince words last week when asked if a return to normalcy might be on the horizon.
“It’s certainly going to get worse before it gets better,” he said, while urging people to embrace social distancing as a mitigation strategy.
For the cannabis industry, which had already been rocked with layoffs and closures in the wake of sluggish sales and extreme regulation, this is more bad news. And while Canadians are stockpiling cannabis amid the crisis, the labour force continues to be impacted. Instead of layoffs, quarantine and self-isolation measures are keeping staff safely at home. Automation, which has become increasingly popular in the sector over the last few years, could help the industry weather this storm.
“Automation is critical in facilities prioritizing social distance and sanitization risk minimization,” says Dan Sutton, the CEO of Vancouver-based Tantalus Labs. “These will be important tools for the future of our industry.”
Jay Evans is the CEO of Keirton Inc., an agricultural engineering and product design business that works with cannabis, hemp and hops. Hops and cannabis are very similar plants, Evans explains, but it wasn’t long before the demand in the cannabis industry outpaced the craft beer sector. Their products now process an estimated three million kilograms of legal weed each year.
The majority of that processing is done by their trimming and bucking machines, which remove the leaves and stems and separate the flower in a matter of seconds, dramatically reducing the need for humans to handle the plant and cutting down on the number of employees needed to be present at the facility.
“You’re not concerned about any sort of contamination of the product when it’s going through automation,” Evans says. “Customers are getting something that has had very little human interaction.”
Evans says it takes about a day for one person to process a pound of cannabis by hand. Through automation, their machines process 100 pounds per hour and only require one person to be in the room.
“We can drastically reduce their need for that labour department right now and we could do that overnight,” Evans says. “We could have them the equipment the next day.”
In the current situation, Evans says the best approach would be to ship the machines out in crates. Both their trimming and bucking machines are designed to be “plug and play” and should issues arise, troubleshooting can be resolved by video conferencing.
The company is headquartered just outside of Vancouver, but they also have a manufacturing plant in Washington State, one of the regions that, so far, has been hit the hardest by COVID-19.
Having manufacturing on both sides of the border allows for them to get their products out faster and within international boundaries. Evans says no employees at Keirton, which employees about 60 people across both facilities, have contracted the virus.
Automation is not just used for processing. Increasingly, licensed producers are turning to data-driven technology to understand which strains are selling and which to cut back on. Many farms have connected sensors that monitor things like temperature, light, and humidity and collect the information in a central database. Medical chatbots are helping consumers choose the right strains and, in California, dispensaries like Erba Collective and Marina Caregivers have automated budtenders. Customers pick their order on screen, and the vending-machine style robots dispense the product. The idea came to fruition when the creator, Zack Johnson, was stuck waiting in a long dispensary line.
Evans says that almost 80 per cent of the legal cannabis industry is using automation and Keirton products already and that they have clients across 30 countries.
“Many companies are ahead of the curve right now, they already have automation, but the ones that are kind of sitting on the fence right now, they’re the ones that could be hardest hit by this,” he says.
Automation is often criticized for the possibility of human job loss, but Evans says the purpose is not to eliminate jobs, but to move labour within the workforce into more productive areas. “There are endless amounts of stuff to be done in these facilities,” he says. “It’s just about moving your labour force around.”
The phones at Keirton have been ringing already, Evans says, and he expects that will continue in the weeks ahead.
“It’s still fairly early right now but we are definitely having these conversations,” he says. “I think in the next two, three weeks, this need is going to become more apparent.”
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Written by Sam Riches