A skilled cannabis worker can hand trim a pound or two of bud per day. The newest Twister trimming machine, by contrast, can trim up to 100 pounds per hour, says Jay Evans, head of cannabis-focused engineering firm Keirton Inc.
Keirton, which makes the Twister and other equipment used in growing and processing facilities, has been around since 2007, and evolved alongside the industry as it moved from medical home growing, to legal U.S. producers, to industrial-scale greenhouses in Canada. At each stage, the industry has become more efficient – but there is still a long way to go, Mr. Evans said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Evans was a finalist for an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Pacific region. Cannabis Professional spoke to him at the time about changing infrastructure needs and how to improve efficiency in the cannabis space. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Cannabis Pro: How did Keirton get started?
Jay Evans: We started the business in 2007. It was initially designed for hops – the hops industry was taking off at the time, there was a ton of opportunity in hops in the craft beer industry. We realized that cannabis was not far down the road, so we shifted our focus. In 2013 when Colorado came online, and then as U.S. states legalized, sales picked up. Once Canada legalized, it definitely picked up a lot. Another example is Israel – of the 10 original facilities in Israel, we’re in all 10 of those facilities. Any country that comes online, we usually get in there quickly and help build out there processing infrastructure.
CP: How have your buyers changed?
JE: We're seeing people who come from the legacy market and who are very experienced with cannabis, we're seeing people who are coming from the junior mining sector, there’s guys coming from oil and gas, we're seeing people from pharmaceutical, especially in Europe. Back to Canada, there's obviously the agriculture guys, the guys who are greenhouse pepper growers or flower growers. Peppers and flowers are grown differently and in different cycles, so even in the subsector of greenhouse growers, there's a debate on who is better, the pepper growers or the flower growers. The best is when you get the pepper growers and the flower growers to work with legacy cannabis producers who are also working with guys who have the GMP pharma background.
CP: What are companies doing to become more efficient?
JE: An easy example is if you were to hand trim cannabis flower you could hand trim one to two pounds in one day per person. Our original machinery would do four pounds an hour. Now we're producing equipment that will do 100 pounds an hour. That's 800 pounds a day, so technically you would need 300 people to do that work. It's not cost effective for the end consumer to have to pay all that labour.
CP: What’s being done pre-harvest to reduce labour requirements?
JE: Technology such as cameras and vision systems watching the room for mold; using UV light and different technologies to reduce the mold or powdery mildew. When you have to strip the buds off the plants, that’s still a very manual job. There is machinery out there that does it, but it’s not efficient. There’s just a ton of areas where the industry could get more efficient.
CP: How do Canadian cannabis growers compare with other agricultural companies when it comes to automation?
JE: That depends on who it is. Some facilities decided their goal is low-cost production, other facilities decided their goal is high-quality, and other facilities decided they might focus more on concentrates and edibles. In the end, there are guys out there who are very advanced. What's for sure is there really isn’t a standard on how to do things yet.
When it comes down to the scale, yes the products [from the large greenhouse producers] may not be the greatest quality right now, but it is not going to be long until they figure out how to produce high quality. In the next two years, they'll be producing high-quality at scale.
CP: I understand the problems companies are having growing at scale has to do with the fact they’re using older greenhouses. What’s happening there?
JE: The biggest thing is dehumidification. With these greenhouses, there just wasn't enough dehumidification in the world to support these guys. You can't go out and buy 30 acres worth for dehumidification off of someone just like that; they have to build it and it takes time. So there were some early crops that had a lot of mold and powdery mildew, just because there wasn't the technology available to combat it.
The challenge is you can't go and exhaust all that smell out into the world, so you have to keep the air fairly contained, and to keep the air contained, you're going to keep all the moisture in it. There's something called a vapor pressure deficit, and you want to be able to pull all that humidity out of the air, because cannabis needs very low humidity in the flowering stage to be successful. It's a big ordeal. And it's not like a pepper. A pepper can handle moisture whereas cannabis is very susceptible to humidity.
Now as the industry has progressed and facilities have been able to install dehumidification and the tools they need, it’s definitely getting a lot better. Give it a couple years and a lot of these things will be straightened out – it’s just trying to move as fast as everyone is moving is challenging.
CP: When you say it’s getting better, how recently have things begun to change?
JE: It’s been progressively getting better in the last 12 months. You got understand, if you go in and install a bunch of dehumidification now, that crop is going to be another say six months away, and that crop is not going to hit the street for another six months after that. So really the world is not going to notice it for a year.
CP: What other infrastructure issues are greenhouse growers having to deal with?
It depends on the size, but some of these facilities are so large they don't have adequate power being brought into them. Often they're using cogeneration or natural gas generators or just very large generators to off-set the lack of infrastructure for the power.
CP: What is it like recruiting engineers to enter the cannabis space?
Engineers are typically a conservative group. Finance people as well are typically a conservative group. So coming into the cannabis space is the first hurdle to overcome, and the next piece is having them educated. We take great pride in teaching everything internally. There is definitely a massive lack in knowledge in the space. Very few people know the industry really well.
CP: Is that a lack of knowledge about technical engineering subjects?
JE: No, it would be on what is needed in the space. It’s easy to say, let’s go do this, this and this. But will the end consumer really like the product that that creates? We can’t just throw a bunch of people at a problem and get them to fix it, without really understanding the nuances of cannabis.