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As cannabis became legal across the U.S., upstart companies doing much of the work by hand started looking for automation solutions.
At first, Jason Sigman, founder and CEO of HighTek USA, saw cannabis as just another product that needed an automation solution. The company had been building machines for the food industry for the better part of 20 years, and whether it was carrots, salad or raw chicken, cannabis was just another input. At the time, the automation landscape in cannabis was troubling, with factories using inappropriate or ill-made equipment that wasn't designed for the industry.
Sigman started designing a system specifically for cannabis products and applications. Initially, the cannabis industry made up a small fraction of his business, but it has grown to be more than half of the company's portfolio in about four years.
Making machines for food is very specific; everything has to be sanitary, stainless steel and meet particular criteria. Cannabis companies didn't require such a high level of cleanliness, but ease of use, some cleanliness and accuracy to 0.01 grams, much more accurate than filling a bag of potato chips.
HighTek's initial success (and now core product) was the mini weigher, which weighs and dispenses cannabis flower or gummies. Before partnering with HighTek, most companies were filling by hand, doing one-to-two weighments per minute. With the mini weigher, they could do up to 50 weighments per minute.
As cannabis operators had a need for additional automation equipment, HighTek's R&D team got to work. One new product is a gross tare jar indexing system. According to Sigman, jars vary in weight. In cannabis, where weights need to be extremely accurate, the industry called for a machine that indexes empty jars and knows how much each jar weighs in order to provide reliable fills.
The company has also added a capping system, but the market is shifting. Pre-made pouches, known in the cannabis industry as mylar bags, have been on the rise, likely because it's much easier to store empty pouches than empty jars.
Designing Cannabis Machines
In the food manufacturing industry, companies run 20 production lines with a full maintenance staff working all day, every day. In cannabis, the machine is likely the company's first piece of automation equipment, and the operator doesn't have a maintenance staff outside the machine operator or floor manager. So, when designing machines for cannabis, Sigman wanted to understand the needs of a typical cannabis operator to make "cannabis-friendly machines" that are easy to use, easy to operate and work reliably without any maintenance intervention. According to Sigman, a common problem in the industry is companies selling machines that are too sophisticated.
The company provides extensive training, but a key to HighTek's success is machines that require minimal service. For example, the mini weigher is fully enclosed and controlled with a human-machine interface (HMI). For maintenance, every part can be removed without a tool.
Companies typically perform 15-to-20-minute "quick cleans" in between strains and hour-long "full cleans" at the end of the day — some customers simply take the parts off and put them in a dishwasher. At the beginning of the workday, the scales need to be zero adjusted and calibrated, but the weigher is otherwise ready to roll.
The mini weigher also has Lexan enclosures that support system accuracy. Some people are unaware, but fans, AC units or any air turbulence can affect final product weight.
Service is another differentiator for Sigman. His company services tier one companies in the food industry, so it is accustomed to providing top-tier customer service that cannabis operators can lean on.
The Cool Factor
With deep industry roots, food manufacturing is pretty dialed in. The equipment has to work and be easy to operate. In cannabis, Sigman says companies want a machine to work, be easy to use, and look cool. It surprised Sigman initially, but he has been having fun adding more customer branding to machines.
Cannabis operators often create content for social media. HighTek has added elements, including green LED lighting to reflect off the high-polished stainless steel to make photos, videos and other posts more impactful.
The cannabis industry reinvigorated Sigman because every technology that was old hat in food was new and exciting to upstart cannabis businesses. HighTek often installs a company's first automation machine, and their eyes light up as it's taken out of the crate. It's rewarding work.
However, working in a nascent industry is not without its challenges. For example, some companies don't have a dock or roll-up doors, so HighTek has had to redesign some machines to fit through a standard doorway. He has also run into other issues, like clients that don't have a forklift to get the equipment off the truck or into the building.
At the end of the day, flower is flower. Unlike the disparate food industry, cannabis is nearly cookie-cutter, with most companies working with the same target weights. The difference has made it easier for Sigman to design pretty plug-and-play machines, with a few adjustments to ensure the machine fits in the room.
Automation is still relatively new to cannabis operators, and Sigman stresses that companies can step into automation rather than taking a full leap. For example, some customers don't need everything at once. If your business is filling one-to-two pouches per minute, upgrading to an entry-level solution that does 12-to-15 pouches per minute can still be a game-changer.
To succeed, Sigman has had to gain customer trust, which has been difficult because the industry was formerly rife with fly-by-night companies making empty promises. To combat the apprehension, Sigman has developed an industry Rolodex of references and is even willing to help clients with financing options.
"We try to do the best we can to help customers. We build relationships, and sometimes in a relationship, you've got to give a little; everybody needs a break. We have no problem working together to [achieve] everyone's goal. The customer's success is our success," Sigman says.
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