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As a long-time cannabis user, Vlad Valme was fascinated by the plant’s diversity and uniqueness. Valme grew up on the east coast and was working in a successful IT career when he decided to move to California and start from scratch in cannabis.
Valme found work in the upstart industry as a budtender. He worked his way up to a dispensary manager and eventually found a home at Thompson Duke Industrial, a company that makes oil vaporizer device filling and capping equipment. Valme says his time as a budtender was among the happiest in his career. His experience reaffirmed everything he believed in the plant as he helped customers find relief every day, despite the many times police raided the shop and Valme was arrested. It was a difficult time, but Valme says it’s easy to get up for work when you believe that you’re doing the right thing.
Valme was drawn to the vaping side of the business because he watched it become a solution for the dispensary’s senior clientele. In those days, the market didn’t have many vaping product options, and as a dispensary manager, he was constantly looking for quality hardware and cartridges to stock on his shelves. His efforts led to multiple relationships with hardware manufacturers, and he was attracted to Thompson Duke Industrial because it was a small company that offered excellent equipment. Valme prefers to work for companies that are small enough to be agile and make changes based on customer feedback.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Thompson Duke designs, manufactures and distributes certified GMP-ready machines that fill and cap vape oil cartridges. The company has fully-automated machines in most large MSOs but also has a semi-automatic option for smaller companies. Based on a company’s needs, the devices can fill 2,500 to 10,000 cartridges per day. Some clients with multiple units are filling up to 100,000 cartridges per day.
The company’s differentiator is ramp-up and ease of use. According to Valme, the units can be unboxed and running within five minutes. It’s a simple, effective, accurate design and requires little training upfront. Thompson Duke provides a higher-end option, but it is an industrial-built machine designed to be a workhorse. Valme says the company has weathered many storms and seen several competitors come and go.
When vapes first broke into the market, Valme recalls three companies that championed the technology in California: Open Vape, Eureka and Pure Vape. Seniors were the initial audience because they had more disposable income—Valme remembers cartridges costing $60 to $80 in those early days.
But the landscape is changing, and vaping demand has grown dramatically. The product category is consistently the second most popular in the market. When new markets come online, interest is initially slow but picks up over time. Still, Valme expects growth in every market.
The small batch craft side of the oil business is growing as well. For example, in 2021, sales of live resin vapes were up 87%. As a result, Thompson has had to ramp up manufacturing to keep up with demand.
Because the machines are made in the U.S., the company can keep several ready-to-ship and partially assembled machines on hand. The inventory has helped the company ride out this year without any supply chain issues. Valme says that some companies are still outsourcing filling even though most Thompson customers realize an ROI within the first month of operation.
Part of the problem is capital, which remains elusive for some cannabis operators. On the other side are companies that have had success despite relying on hand-filling and haven’t yet realized that they could be stalling the business or wasting resources that could be used elsewhere.
Thompson Duke’s semi-automatic machine averages 2,500 fills per day and retails for around $8,000. Some companies have achieved 5,000 fills per day with a single operator—the fully-automated machine, which can hit 10,000 per day, costs about $35,000.
While competitors sell on speed, Thompson Duke sells on accuracy with less waste in each run or batch. When it comes to waste, hand filling is the biggest culprit, with operators under and overfilling cartridges and material stuck or lost in the machine — typically in machines with long lines.
Thompson Duke’s machines not only prevent product loss but are more cleanable, with only four components that touch the oil and can be switched out in less than five minutes.
Now an industry veteran, Valme remains surprised by how fast the industry continues to grow, and he is excited about Thompson Duke’s GMP-ready machines. He says the company invested more upfront to ensure that equipment will be future-proofed as new states come online with increasingly rigorous standards and remain ready for when federal legalization is finally realized.
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