Words to Live by for Continuous Improvement in the Cannabis Extraction Industry
The cannabis industry has come a long way from the black-market that once dominated for decades. Today, more companies are employing standardized methods handed down from earlier traditional sectors such as academia, big pharma, and manufacturing.
Frequent changes in state legislation add to the fluctuating nature of the market, which means companies have to spend valuable resources trying to keep up with these requirements. Meanwhile, productivity and quality are compromised. All the better reason to anticipate these needs by optimizing processes from start to finish.
Project management: process improvement and lean manufacturing
Cannabis is unlike other industries that have come before. Big agriculture has rigorous controls placed on mass cultivation and processing; the pharmaceutical industry has strict cleanliness and safety protocols. Even extraction methods closely resemble techniques used to make essential oils. These more traditional businesses tend to employ many project management techniques meant to make processes more efficient.
Kaizen, six sigma, and lean manufacturing are key concepts used by these companies to keep continually improving all aspects of their operation. The first, kaizen, is a Sino-Japanese word for “improvement” or “change for the better” and refers to the effort to improve all business activities from the top CEO to the bottom factory line worker for the greater good of the company. This principle has been applied to supply chain management, logistics, finance, healthcare, and government affairs. So why not cannabis? Canna-businesses from small boutiques to large vertically integrated operations need to carefully consider ways to cut costs and increase the efficiency of operations to reduce waste.
This leads us to the concept of lean manufacturing, brought to us courtesy of a production management system called the Toyota way. The goals are to specify value for each product, make value flow without interruptions, let customers pull value from the producer, and “pursue perfection.” The result is less effort, less waste, and less consumption of resources required to produce results.
Finally, there’s “six sigma,” a tool introduced by Bill Smith from Motorola back in 1986. Its first point is that continuous efforts to achieve predictable process results are of vital importance to business success. Secondly, manufacturing and business processes should have characteristics that can be defined, measured, analyzed, improved, and controlled. The system also encourages achieving sustained quality improvement through commitment from the entire organization, particularly from top-level management. Much of these principles overlap with other concepts discussed earlier.
Are these tools essential for legitimizing and standardizing the commercial hemp and cannabis sectors? “Unequivocally, yes,” Thomas Rosengren from Flower One in Las Vegas, Nevada, tells Analytical Cannabis. “Without a doubt, the industry is going there. It has to, in order to remain competitive.”
It may not be a cure-all measure for all troubles that the industry has to endure, but Thomas believes these concepts could be powerful business tools for the cannabis industry. These methods may be very unfamiliar to many employees and owners within the sector, therefore, a humble approach to collaboration and education is necessary.
“Listen to the wisdom that these upstarts have acquired over the years,” Rosengren says. “Listen to what matters to them because what matters to them is what made them successful. Then figure out a way to use these great tools that we've garnered outside of cannabis or with more traditional and formal educational routes to deliver to them in meaningful ways.”
“I think that's where the skill set needs to be, through improved education of those people who come from outside of cannabis. Deepening our understanding of the backgrounds people born and bred in cannabis bring to the table allows outsiders to relate better, in hopes of gaining enough shared reality to a point where we get to share these powerful continuous improvement and project management tools.”
Analyzing data and statistics can give a company the crucial feedback they need to set realistic expectations about their capabilities. This includes analytical testing, such as chromatography, to assess final products. Bringing these capabilities in-house means a company can make fast decisions about quality control and maintain compliance with local regulations.
Kellan Finney of Eighth Revolution, a private intelligence agency serving the international cannabis and hemp industries, is a major proponent of robust in-house analytics. “At the end of the day, I can write an equation down and say ‘this is the solubility, here's the density of the CO2, and this is what we're going to go after,’” says Finney, “but if we don’t know the exact chemical profile and the concentration of those chemicals within that batch of material that you're trying to attract, then you're just kind of blindfolded, throwing darts at a board. It's just a guessing game at that point.”
This need is filled by services provided by Eighth Revolution. “We really just try to give the smaller to medium sized companies a fighting chance” Finney says. “We provide them with similar resources as larger companies, from a data analytics standpoint to market trend analysis.” These tools help companies remain competitive for years to follow.
Businesses that devote sufficient resources to developing in-house analytics can quickly access vital feedback on their operating conditions. A lot of questions go unanswered and processes remain inefficient unless they employ analytical techniques provided by companies like Eighth Revolution. These techniques also help a cannabis operation stay consistently lean from a manufacturing standpoint.
Artificial intelligence and databases
The cannabis sector tends to model itself after major tech industries. As a result, there is an ongoing endeavor to use new technology to eliminate waste, error, and inefficiency. Enter, artificial intelligence (AI). AI brings automation to focus, meaning less reliance on the natural intelligence displayed by humans.
“Currently, we are working on an AI to build an all-encompassing formula that can be used to optimize any extraction, run on any machine, for any material input,” Dr Markus Roggen, founder of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures, tells Analytical Cannabis. “Now I’m taking even myself out of the equation and I have an equation that can monitor and optimize production on the go.”
The inspiration for this particularly dynamic AI algorithm arises from the need to assess multiple data points without having the ability to run repetitive research and development experiments. In most cases, companies do not have the time or resources to run these scenarios in real-time, so this machine-learning intelligence cuts that time exponentially by reviewing different parameters and optimizing the quality of the end-product.
For accuracy and efficiency, this AI can be coupled with a highly populated database that catalogs all parameters used. “We actually have built a database of over 800 compounds in the cannabis plant” Roggen adds. “There are over 100 cannabinoids, over 200 terpenes, flavonoids, sugars, amino acids, carotenes, aldehydes, alcohols, and fats. It's all in there. We look at the molecular structure, molecular weight, boiling point melting, and solubility. We are now building the NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance], IR [infrared], and LC [liquid chromatography] spectrum of each compound. It's not all there yet, but we're slowly building this.”
As advancements are made in machine learning and database management, we will see more of their influence on the cannabis market. Optimization and standardization goals are easily met as a result.
Project management tools like kaizen, six sigma, and lean production provide methodologies that can easily be taught to a larger team. This ensures all moving parts are well synchronized. In-house analytics give companies the rapid feedback required to make decisions regarding standardized procedures and process improvement. A highly populated database of all parameters, operating conditions, and cannabis compounds can be produced because of these analytics. AI software can then be made to fully utilize these large databases. These coordinated efforts are essential to ensuring company longevity.
The cannabis industry has come a long way from earlier iterations. Professionals like Rosengren, Finney, and Roggen are among a group of talented scientists leading the way to a mature industry. As all three have agreed, this direction is necessary if we want to eventually see the plant federally de-scheduled.
This article was amended on October 20, 2020, to clarify a quote.