Easing Testing Bottlenecks

The Microlab NIMBUS automated liquid handling workstation from Hamilton Robotics provides speed, flexibility, and precision so that labs can ease sample testing bottlenecks and shorten time to results.

One of the biggest hurdles that producers and processors encounter is the process of regulatory testing. Testing requirements vary from state to state, but often include analyses on potency, pesticides and other contaminants, as well as documenting the sample’s physical attributes.

The increased number of samples submitted to laboratories, along with ever-changing and complex testing requirements and protocols, means that it can take weeks to receive test results, which may be an impediment to efficiency or profits. This is further compounded if testing does reveal a problem and at least a portion of the harvest must be destroyed.

An unfortunate workaround to this outward-seeming obstacle is the practice of “lab shopping,” whereby producers familiarize themselves with labs that provide favorable data.

However, it’s important to remember that public health and safety are the primary motivations for cannabis testing requirements — not just for consumers, but for anyone exposed to cannabis cultivation and processing. At the same time, a grower or processor’s reputation, and by extension, livelihood, could be a secondary motivator, as subversion for the sake of short-term revenue can have long-lasting or permanent consequences.

Earlier this year, two major Canadian medical cannabis producers were forced to recall large quantities of product due to failed pesticide testing. The two producers, Organigram Inc. and Mettrum, collectively serve about 25,000 customers, or about 20% of the medical card-holding market in Canada. It’s highly likely that legal ramifications will follow as patients complained of deleterious health effects, according to a story published by CBC News. Consumers will undoubtedly remember these producers in a tarnished light, if the companies remain solvent.

Another consideration is the reputation of the entire cannabis industry, which has been striving for decades to gain public acceptance. It stands to reason that peer pressure will collectively drive responsible testing and abolish the practice of “lab shopping.” Yet, in spite of the critical nature of regulatory testing, the challenge remains for laboratories to satisfy their customers — the growers and processors — by minimizing downtime in the seed-to-sale production cycle, while still providing high-quality, accurate results.

The Balancing Act

Testing facilities face a constant balancing act between external and internal pressures. Their customers demand quick turnaround and reliable, consistent results at an affordable cost. Cannabis testing labs need to attract, train and maintain qualified employees. Testing regulations continue to change, yet standardized test methods, such as those used in agriculture and pharmaceutical markets, do not yet exist in the cannabis market. Labs are therefore responsible for developing and validating their own test methods that are often unique to the wide variety of cannabis-based products, from flowers to various edibles, concentrates, tinctures and more. Each product category takes time and money to develop testing methods.

Typically, each test is performed manually, which can take significant time and limit the number of tests that can be conducted each day. For example, the procedure for preparing cannabinoid extraction samples is notoriously burdensome; samples are ground, then various extraction solvents and dilution buffers are added and the mixture is filtered prior to analysis. When performed manually, the visual interpretation of particle size and physical force necessary to push a solution through a membrane during the grinding and filtration steps, respectively, often vary from technician to technician, thereby impacting consistency of results, and perhaps requiring retesting if performed incorrectly. These steps and the addition or removal of liquids require active time from technicians in the context of the overall testing workflow, which can last for several hours each. As individual samples are handled independently, the technician becomes the critically limiting factor in sample processing time and throughput.

Automation Engineering

Packaging machinery may improve workflow, but it may also cause more bottlenecks

By Alex Johnston

You don’t have to be an industry insider to see that the edibles market is exploding. As consumers become more comfortable with these types of products, demand will continue to grow and producer/processors will need to scale up their operations to keep pace.

For child safety reasons, most jurisdictions place restrictions on packaging for edible products. The combination of these two factors means a considerable amount of time and energy are being put into placing cookies, chocolates and brownies into compliant packages, all at a rising cost.

The obvious solution to rising expenses is automation, but how do you know where to start? There are literally hundreds of packaging automation companies, offering a variety of solutions, at price points ranging from a few thousand dollars to multi-million dollar systems. It is important to have a well-thought-out plan for what you are hoping to achieve with your system and to clearly define your requirements. This means looking at all your current and planned products, projected quantity of the product and the steps involved in getting them packaged in an attractive and compliant package.

Once that is figured out, match each step in the process with a machine that fits your budget, but make sure to allocate your automation resources evenly. One of the biggest mistakes people make is over-spending on capacity they can’t use. Think about it like buying a Ferrari, then being forced to drive behind a school bus; Just because the sales rep tells you a machine can produce 300 pieces of candy per minute doesn’t mean you will be running it that fast, especially if the steps before and after that machine are slower.

There are a lot of people excited about this industry and looking for ways to invest. Capital equipment is a popular channel for third-party investment, but even if the money is available, make sure you are buying the capacity you can actually use. For example, one manufacturer was about to buy an $80,000 filling machine until he realized he could fill all his orders just by buying a $20 set of specially sized measuring cups.

When looking at a new automation purchase, be sure to ask yourself the following questions: Is this the slowest part of my production process? Once I get this machine, what operation becomes my new bottleneck? What constraints does this machine place on my future business (such as limits on product dimensions, package style, etc.)? How much capacity of this machine will go unused?

Manufacturers like Nestle, Mars and Hershey’s spend millions of dollars every year not just on equipment, but making sure they buy the right equipment. As cannabis-infused edibles companies mature and the industry grows even more competitive, they will need to apply the same level of rigor to their automation plan.

Alex Johnston is an industrial systems engineer and Lean Six Sigma black belt. He and his team specialize in helping companies find the right automation solutions for their processing and packaging systems. For more information on automation system design and process improvement, contact him on LinkedIn.

Most cannabis testing laboratories operate on tight budgets, so any negative disruption to the delicate and ever-shifting balance between cost, time and change could impact not only the quality of results, but the success of the business. At the same time, retailers and, ultimately, consumers, rely on lab results to authenticate that what they are selling and consuming is safe, and at the correct dosing concentration.

Automation Salvation

Automated instruments are a tool that cannabis testing laboratories can employ to ease the sample bottleneck and quickly adapt to change without sacrificing quality or long-term profits. Automation is already used by cannabis producers, from irrigation systems to packaging machines. The general principle is to get more done in less time, and in a consistent, repeatable manner. The same principle applies to a wide array of automated laboratory instruments that are already well-established in a host of related industries, including life science, diagnostics, food, agriculture and many more.

In the cannabis testing lab, an automated instrument like a liquid handler can be used to perform routine sample preparation and extraction tasks such as dispensing, aspirating or evaporating liquids. Steps are pre-programmed into the instrument and can be quickly recalled, while lock-out protocols prevent unauthorized or accidental changes. This increases the efficiency of sample processing, even among different sample types, while it removes the risk of operator variability. This frees staff members from tedious and repetitive laboratory test procedures, so they can focus on important issues like data analysis and developing new methods for testing and validation in response to changing regulations.

Automation can save time while increasing throughput, for increased workflow efficiency that benefits the entire cannabis supply chain.

Laboratories can easily achieve a 25% decrease in overall elapsed workflow time for a batch of 96 samples. The active time required by technicians is reduced by around 40%, allowing them to focus on other tasks. By removing manual operator variabilities, result accuracy is increased along with a reduced need for repeat analyses. It’s worth highlighting that as labs move into higher throughput analyses, their overall per sample analytical cost goes down as both manpower and related material cost per sample decreases.

With the tight control and consistency of automated methods comes a natural progression toward standardization too. When a standard method is developed, validated and programmed, it is locked down and easily transferrable to other automated instruments, whether in the same lab or across other locations, saving significant time and efforts associated with duplicated standard operating procedures. It also contributes toward gathering collective knowledge and quality assurance for organizations such as the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories.

Another benefit is accountability through complete sample tracking and data records. If a producer questions results, the lab has a documented trail of data attached to the sample and any lab technicians involved in the testing processes.

As the cannabis market continues to expand and gain public acceptance, testing requirements will likewise evolve and mature. This places even more importance on the testing lab and the benefits of automation will become a critical asset, as it can alleviate concerns from all sides of the industry, from producer to consumer, and increase overall efficiency, quality and safety in this nascent field.

Ryan M. Ravenelle obtained his Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He joined Hamilton Robotics in 2015 as scientific leader of applied sciences. He focuses on industries outside of traditional biology and life sciences, including promoting and developing automation solutions for the cannabis industry.

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