When it comes to the future of cannabis packaging, anything is possible.
“The limit is only how much money you have and how fast you can make your product,” said Josh Wallingford, marketing and technology manager for VC999 Packaging Systems.
With the allowance of commercial-scale production facilities and ever-changing state laws, the days of buying and selling marijuana in flimsy plastic sandwich bags is disappearing rapidly. Modern retail packaging allows myriad benefits for those in the cannabis industry, including branding and extending the shelf life of various products.
While packaging requirements vary from state to state, many businesses are moving away from selling loose buds out of big glass jars. Retail-style packaging takes up less shelf space and allows companies to develop their identity and differentiate themselves in a crowded market — a critical component to a company’s success, said Wendy Rall, owner of Budd Branding, a boutique design company devoted to the cannabis space.
“I believe there are still companies who get caught up in the creation of the product or service, without specifying who they want to attract,” Rall said. “It is very important to identify your target market. Once this is known, my advice is to hire a professional designer to discuss your business and demographic and to share your ideas.”
Even in vertically-integrated markets, where store location often plays a bigger role in customer habits than design elements, modern packaging machines can extend shelf life of products by months or even years, regardless of whether it’s a raw steak, a dried cannabis flower or an infused brownie.
“It can sit there for months,” Walllingford said. “There’s no product degradation. Vaping and edibles is just booming and your shelf life on something like that is indefinite.”
Depending on the needs and budget of the producer, there are machines that can preserve perishable items by vacuum packing or a gas flush, where air is sucked out and replaced with nitrogen. One of the most common examples of nitrogen-flushed packaging is snack chips, which are packaged to maintain freshness practically forever.
The extended shelf life is particularly valuable for outdoor growers, who might only produce one massive crop per year. Nitrogen-flush packaging can allow them to have fresh products through the entire year until their next harvest, and also gives them the option to wait out price fluctuations in the winter and early spring due to the flooded market.
But perhaps the biggest value of automated packaging systems is the sheer savings of time and the cost of labor. Most commercial-scale indoor growers cycle through their harvests so quickly they need an entire team of employees dedicated to processing and packaging.
VC999 manufactures a variety of packaging solutions, ranging from tabletop vacuum sealers that cost a couple thousand dollars up to commercial-scale automated machines that are 60 feet long, cost more than $100,000 and are capable of packaging, labeling and preserving hundreds of products a minute.
Fast is a relative term for VC999.
Like Wallingford said, it’s simply a matter of how much money a company is willing to invest in packaging. And that’s often a result of how much merchandise is being produced.
Machines like the multihead weighers, from the XtraVac line, feature a series of scales to precisely weigh a product, package it and seal it for longevity.
“It looks like a crazy airplane engine,” and it’s capable of churning out up to 60 bags a minute, Wallingford said.
Other machines, like one used to package deli sandwiches for convenience stores, are even faster. Wallingford said that particular company has been able to package 52,000 sandwiches in a single shift with two machines.
Machines can be set up to handle packaging for multiple different products, requiring just one person to change dies and the packaging program with a touch-screen in about 15 minutes.
Some companies in the cannabis industry have taken the jump into automated packaging machines, but only a relative few have the production output to make packaging investments a no-brainer.
For smaller companies, it doesn’t pencil out to make a six-figure investment in packaging machinery, at least until interstate commerce is allowed, Wallingford said. Without interstate commerce, only states like California, New York and possibly Illinois have the population base where commercial packaging systems are a must-have.
Wallingford pointed out the Zoots and Dama brands in Washington as two companies utilizing VC999 roll-stock machines.
“Those guys are doing it right,” he said.
While the cannabis industry is currently a fraction of VC999’s overall business, Wallingford said he sees it growing into something much larger as laws continue to change throughout the nation. Many of VC999’s longtime clients package a variety of meats, snack foods, pharmaceutical products and even gold coins.