These trends are particularly acute in the recreational market, but they’re also playing out in medical cannabis states as well. And they’re expected to accelerate in the coming years as the industry marches forward. In the future, growers that don’t or can’t adapt to these changes will get gobbled up or destroyed completely by the competition.With this as the backdrop, cultivation companies increasingly are turning to automation to cut costs, gain an edge over the competition, bolster control over the grow process and improve efficiencies.Mechanization can accomplish many of the things that people now do manually, such as turning up the thermostat or watering and feeding the plants. If smartly implemented, automation can save businesses tens of thousands of dollars over the long haul and improve the quality of the plants.But diving headfirst into automation blindly can be a big mistake. Growers must be selective about which processes they choose to automate, and they must remember to crunch the numbers, particularly when it comes to production costs. While automation can be a great solution for many situations, growers have been known to spend six-figuresums on technology they ultimately didn’t need – or that failed them. Trial and error is sometimes a given.Shane McKee, chief cultivator with Shango Premium Cannabis, a marijuana brand and dispensary chain in Portland,Oregon, noted that automating the irrigation system in a large grow can be especially tricky.
McKee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on failed or expired automation equipment in general, including irrigation. “There have been things that we bought that didn’t work, and things that we bought that we’re still using,” he said. “So there’s been a lot of research and development along the way – things that we spent money on that we’re no longer using.”Cultivators have different opinions on what should and shouldn’t be automated and how different technologies Gardener Daniel Demeulle works in a grow room under the watchful eye of an environmental sensor installed at Shango Premium Cannabis.Photo by Steve Dykes Should be implemented. What they do have in common is how they arrive at their decisions: They review their costs and the problems they’re trying to solve,and they determine how mechanization can help. Growers that take this approach to automation are much more likely to succeed.Must Automate Autumn Rose Karcey, president of Cultivo, a cannabis cultivation consult-ing firm in Los Angeles that specializes in automation, predicts that growers may not have a choice when it comes to employing technology, especially those that operate a big grow.“In five years, it’s not going to be a choice of ‘do I automate or not,’” she said. “In a large-scale operation, automation is key for survival.The Nabisco Cookie factory isn’t going to question whether they use automated equipment.You just reach a point of growth where you have to automate in any manufacturing practice, in any industry.”Even small growers can benefit from mechanization, Karcey said. If a fan malfunctions when you’re out of town but you have a sensor that can alert you,you can call someone to fix the problem.Moreover, the necessity of automation won’t be driven just by size, but profit margins.The 30% wholesale margins many growers have enjoyed won’t last: They are already dissipating in mature markets like Colorado and Washington state. When those mar-gins decline, which players survive will largely depend on who cuts costs.“Automation is going to play a key role,” Karcey said. “If it costs me $500 to produce one pound of cannabis and my neighbor $900 to produce one pound –based on the fact that I have automated equipment – who’s going to survive?”
Automation for Your Environment What to automate first? Most experts say you should aim for the grows environment – air conditioning, heating,dehumidifying, humidifying, watering and feeding.“The most important thing is environmental controls with multiple redundancies,” said McKee of Shango, which has a total of about 200,000 square feet of cultivation space at its sites in Oregon, Washington and Nevada.The Company produces Chong’s Choice flower, Shango-branded edibles and other products.If you’re going to automate your facility, you also may as well invest in software that monitors temperature, humidity, CO2, irrigation and other factors at your site.The technology alerts you via text or email when any of those factors get too low or too high.For example, McKee was alerted after one of hisPortland sites lost power. He went there to make sure the backup generators and controls had kicked in and were functioning until the main power returned.He said it’s “critical” to have backup generators to ensure your systems continue operating in the event of a power outage.It’s worth remembering that while automation software is powerful, it would be risky to use by itself without backups.There are many ways to implement such backups.“There’s no one system that you can trust when you have 500 pounds of product in one room,”McKee said. “You build in redundancies. If one thing fails, you can catch it another way.”At Shango, for example, McKee has a primary set of digital sensors to monitor the environmental conditions in his sites and regulate equipment. If those sensors fail, he has backup analog sensors that come on and regulate the environment as need be.There are other ways to minimize risk. If you have a room that requires 25 tons of air conditioning, for example, you don’t use one 25-ton air conditioner.Instead, you try five, 5-ton units.That way, if one air conditioner goes down, the others will suffice until the broken unit is running again.“If we’re down 20% for a few days, it’s not going to kill me,”McKee said, adding that the crop isn’t damaged.Automating Irrigation Compared to climate and humidity, watering and feeding are more difficult to automate, McKee said.But it can be done. Like climate monitors, water and nutrient monitors allow growers to watch and adjust how much of both their plants are receiving.But be aware that automating these may require some trial and error.“The toughest struggle we’ve had is automating the plumbing on large-scale grows,”McKee said. “When HIRE A PRO If you’re a grower who decides to take the automation plunge, don’t do it yourself.Instead, hire an engineering professional. This should be someone who knows cultivation automation software and how to build or renovate a site so that it accommodates mechanization and maximizes the savings and product quality.“You need a building design plan from a pro, because without that design plan, even the best contractor can only do so much,” said Shane McKee, chief cultivator with Shango Premium Cannabis, a cannabis brand and dispensary chain in Portland, Oregon.Ideally, that building design expert will also know something about cannabis.“Even some of the biggest botanical companies won’t understand your needs and the redundancies that you need,” McKee said.Shango used to contract out those design and software duties. But over the past year, the company has hired an in-house construction team of about 15 people that includes software engineers.
Their task is to maintain and improve Shango’s automation and monitoring systems.Finally, growers also need to be able to clearly tell engineers what they want to achieve and educate them about how various strains respond to different environments.Leaving cultivation site design to a grower who doesn’t work in construction can lead to overspending and inefficient building layouts.Autumn Rose Karcey, president of canna-centric grow consultancy Cultivo, recently visited a grow site in Nevada that was steeped in LED lights but skimpedon its air conditioning use. The grower raved about how much money was being saved in electricity costs. But the company was producing only about half the weight of product it could have been with the correct environment.“It doesn’t matter how much they were saving in power how energy efficient they looked, that place is going to have to be completely revamped or they’re going to be done in five years,” Karcey said.“They let their grower play general contractor, which is the biggest mistake an investor can make. If you don’t know construction, why are you designing a building?”— Omar Sacirbey
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