Packaging machines for legal cannabis products: A beginner's guide
Being illegal for much of modern history, cannabis products have almost always been packaged by hand.
Now that cannabis has been legalized in many US states and nationwide in Canada, the market has seen explosive growth, and with that, a need for faster and more efficient packaging processes. Enter: Packaging automation.
Automated packaging systems can not only speed up the packaging process substantially, but can reduce manual labor costs, result in more accurate package weights, keep your product fresher longer, and better represent your brand.
Looking for an automated packaging solution for your legal cannabis product and not sure where to start? Relax, we're here to help. Our experts break it all down for you in this short beginner's guide to packaging automation for cannabis.
What kinds of cannabis products work best with packaging automation?
Many cannabis products already resemble items that have been packaged using automation for many years, even decades. So even though the market is relatively new, creating automated packaging systems for cannabis products is almost identical to applications that have already been tried, tested, and proven.
Below are some examples of cannabis product categories that can easily be packaged on automated packaging machines:
- Cannabis edibles like gummies, candies, cookies, and snacks
- CBD oils and other CBD products
- Cannabis pre-rolls
- Raw cannabis buds, flowers, stems, and leaves
- Cannabis powders and kief
- Cannabis tinctures, liquid extracts, and juices
This is not an exhaustive list, so if your product doesn't quite fit those categories, just ask your packaging machine manufacturer. Chances are an automated process can be developed to package it.
Advantages of packaging automation for cannabis
Most growing businesses end up exactly where you are right now: Demand is growing like crazy and your manual packaging process not only can't keep up, but it's expensive and inefficient. Here are some ways automated packaging systems can help:
- Say goodbye to tedious, unscalable manual processes. Let's face it: Humans aren't the most efficient or accurate packagers. We make mistakes, we drop things, we're slow, we need breaks. Packaging machines are accurate, reliable, and fast, consistently producing the same product repeatedly until you tell them to stop. Plus, instead of hiring more people to scale up your operation, you can invest in one machine that can take you to a level humans never could.
- A better representation of your brand. The 'clear plastic baggie' of the past won't cut it anymore! In a competitive landscape, packaging is everything. It's the first interaction a customer has with your product, so it better be great. Consumers can tell when packaging is low-quality, and with cannabis being a high-value product, you can't afford to look cheap. Packaging automation consistently produces a premium-looking product, so your brand will always be well-represented.
- Increased production...and profit. Right now, with manual packing, you are probably averaging 5 - 15 packages per person per minute if you're lucky. Even a simple, entry-level packaging machine can get you up to 40 bags per minute...and high-speed systems can even produce up to 300 bags per minute! Go with a multilane stick pack machine, and you will be cruising along at speeds of up to 1,600 packages per minute. That's a huge gain not only in production but in profit.
- High accuracy, even at high speeds. Measuring and weighing your product by hand is imperfect at best. And if you try to speed up a manual packing process you will likely sacrifice accuracy. Pairing an automated packaging machine with a high-accuracy multi-head scale gives you the best of both worlds: Accuracy to a tenth of a gram, even at high speeds.
- A fresher product. Exposure to oxygen, light, humidity, and the elements can directly affect the potency and effectiveness of cannabis products. Packaging automation technologies can mitigate these factors to greatly increase the shelf-life and protection of expensive cannabis products.
Cannabis packaging machine types & recommendations
There are many options on the market for cannabis packaging automation. The machine type recommended largely depends upon your package format. For the purpose of this article, we are exploring packaging machine options that work with flexible packaging like bags, stick packs, and pouches. So let's jump right in:
PREMADE POUCH PACKING MACHINE
The premade pouch packing machine is the most quickly growing flexible packaging machine type in the cannabis industry right now. Cannabis companies that love the premium, small-batch look of premade bags love the automatic pouch packing machine.
This machine fills and seals premade bags that are already formed into their end pouch shape. An operator loads the bags into a holding area, from which the machine picks up each pouch, fills it with an exact measure of the cannabis product, seals it shut, and discharges the bag from the machine.
A premade pouch machine is a great solution for a cannabis company that has a wide variety of bag sizes or products because it is super easy to adjust it to accommodate different pouches. Pouch packing machines are also simple to learn and operate. Advanced technical training or experience is not necessary, and our clients often employ entry-level labor to run these machines.
How do these machines work in real life? Watch a pouch packaging machine for cannabis gummies in action:
Form fill seal machines are bagmakers in that they form bags from a flat roll of packaging film, fill those bags with an exact amount of product, and seal them shut. These machines can be configured to package in a horizontal fashion (horizontal form fill seal or HFFS) or a vertical fashion (vertical form fill seal or VFFS).
Vertical form fill seal machines are great for reaching high packaging speeds. They work best for dedicated cannabis product lines without a ton of variation. That said, many of our clients use a single VFFS machine to produce multiple bag sizes. While these machines are still easy to operate, they require a bit more technical training than a premade pouch machine.
A stick pack machine works similar to a VFFS machine in that it's a bagmaker that forms narrow stick pack bags, fills them with an exact amount of product, and seals them shut. The main difference is that a stick pack machine has multiple lanes and produces more than one package per cycle.
Stick pack machines create thin, single-serve bags. Think drink mixes or instant coffee. This machine type is great for dedicated product lines and high throughput for powder, granular, and liquid products.
Cannabis packaging automation considerations
MODIFIED ATMOSPHERE PACKAGING (MAP)
Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is widely used in many industries including coffee and perishable food items. Basically, MAP creates or maintains a certain mixture of gases within a package to keep the contents fresh.
When oxygen is mixed with cannabis, the THC cannabinoids oxidate and turn into CBN cannabinoids, which decreases product efficacy, potency, and quality. One way to prevent oxidation is by using a MAP technology called gas flush, which blasts the inside of a package with harmless nitrogen gas prior to sealing the package. This displaces the majority of the oxygen present and results in longer shelf life.
Requirements for child-resistant closures for cannabis packages vary by state and country. Most companies opt for the highest level of protection whether it is required or not. This is not only good practice but also means you will not have to pay for an expensive package redesign should the laws change.
If your package features a child-resistant closure, that's no problem for automated packaging machines, just let your equipment manufacturer know.
DATE AND LOT CODES
Many cannabis companies have adopted similar packaging guidelines as regular consumer packaged goods (CPG) products. This includes tracking and identifying information like packaging dates, lot numbers, and expiration dates.
Most packaging machines can easily be configured with a printer that takes care of these things automatically.
Questions to prepare for when shopping for cannabis packing machines
When you contact a packaging machine manufacturer for more information about automated packaging systems, be prepared for a ton of questions! This isn't to annoy you, we promise.
Here's the thing: Packing machines are very rarely bought 'off-the-shelf'; they are usually customized to the end user's exact specifications. So to properly recommend the best machine and to provide you with the most accurate pricing, packaging machine manufacturers need to know a lot of detail.
Here are 7 specific questions to prepare for when contacting a packing machine manufacturer for more information about automating your cannabis packaging:
- What are your weight tolerances? In the legal cannabis world, there are strict regulations on how much your package weights can vary. Differing variance requirements require different product weighers.
- Can 'fines' be introduced into the package? To keep within legal weight tolerances, some industries introduce what are called 'fines', or small pieces of product, to their packages. Fines are introduced minimally and only when needed to ensure you are within accuracy tolerances required by your government.
- How much vertical space do you have available? When you must weigh product to within very tight tolerances, you need a high-accuracy multi-head scale. These scales most often sit on top of a packaging machine. If you are lacking vertical space, your packing machine manufacturer needs to know so they can recommend alternatives.
- What are your bag sizes? A very basic question that has very serious implications if not accurate. If your bag is flat, we need to know its width and height. If your bag stands up or has a pronounced depth, we need to know the width, height, and depth.
- What are your bag types? We also need to know if you are using bags that are already preformed into their end shape...or if you would like to form your bags from scratch from a flat roll of packaging film. These choices represent two very different packaging machine types.
- Do you have any speed requirements? If high speeds are a primary concern, this will inform the recommendations of the packaging machine manufacturer.
- Do you have any budget restrictions? Like everything else, it does come down to money eventually. Packaging automation is a substantial investment, but when done right, it can provide a substantial ROI. That said, there's a wide array of options on the market from very basic to high-end turnkey lines. Financing is also an option you may want to explore.
Learn more about automated packaging systems
If it's your first time shopping for packaging machinery, breathe easy, we got your back! Download our free first-time buyer's guide to learn everything you need to know to confidently purchase your first automated cannabis packaging machine: