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How Cannabis Labs Can Benefit From Data and Process Automation

By Kimberly Ross

Published: May 04, 2022   
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Legal cannabis markets around the globe mandate varying degrees of testing prior to sale. Regulated medical and adult-use cannabis products typically undergo testing for potency labeling as well as screening for several classes of residual chemical compounds and microbial groups.

The total number of target analytes required by state regulations will dictate the equipment and instrumentation needed, such as mass spectrometers, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) units for microbial testing, and dozens of other devices that generate and capture data (balances, moisture analyzers, and water activity meters, for example).

Cannabis testing labs, much like other types of commercial laboratories, benefit from modernizing operations to gain efficiencies in data handling, reduce manual input errors, and digitize record keeping where possible.

Eliminate manual recording and transcription by implementing environmental data loggers, direct capture balances, etc.

Ideally, the massive amounts of data generated by laboratory devices should be precisely captured and indelibly stored in a secure environment, either on local servers or remotely in a digital cloud. Many labs are shifting away from paper-based record keeping systems, although such records are still required by some states for some purposes.

Operational efficiencies are gained when repetitive tasks revolving around data handling and storage can be automated, freeing up human resources to focus on tasks that require human intervention or interpretation. For example, manually checking the temperatures of refrigerators, freezers, and incubators for compliance with stated storage requirements or required growth temperatures for microbial assays is a common lab task. Recording these daily checks in a paper log also requires a person to later physically archive the paper log in the filing system, and occasionally retrieve the paper log for visual inspection during a compliance audit or state site-visit. Replacing the manual system with automated data loggers, including a portal to access data points in real time or observe historical trends, improves efficiency and reduces the labor hours required when compared to manual processes. Parameters can be configured to automate system triggers that deliver an alert to a predefined email address or phone number if a unit needs human attention.

Instant capture of balance readouts directly into the laboratory management software has many advantages if we consider the cumbersome nature of writing down a number on a form and transferring the value to a spreadsheet to digitize it for use in calculations. Interpretation of handwriting by someone other than the author can lead to transcription errors; a poorly written 6 that is interpreted as a 0 can alter a final result. Routine data acquisition from balances connected to the laboratory software systems via integrated RS232 ports for data transfer eliminates the need for personnel to manually transcribe sample weights from one form to another.

Automate data handling processes with customized, built-for-purpose software

Analytical instruments output massive loads of raw data points for every analyte, which require additional calculations to produce appropriate in-sample concentration results. Calculations that turn raw instrument data into reportable client-facing certificates of analysis (COAs) are typically housed in a software environment that has been validated to show it produces the intended result. These results must also be screened against regulatory action limits, above which a test sample fails the compliance screening. All of this typically happens thousands of times per day in order to produce sample results for laboratory clients. Software than can accommodate the outputs of analytical instrumentation, parse the information attributable to each sample appropriately, and generate results in reportable format for the client is a prized and crucial asset to a cannabis testing laboratory.

Incorporate automated sample preparation into lab workflows

In the cannabis lab, the specific suite of testing mandated by each state or country will dictate several distinct workflows according to each assay. For example, microbial samples are processed using aqueous buffers or nutrient broths, whereas samples for determination of cannabinoid content are typically subjected to organic solvent extraction to prepare the flower and other products for instrumental analysis. Therefore, a separate sub-sample for each of these assays is weighed from the homogenized parent sample, and each test sample proceeds along its respective microbial or cannabinoid workflow independently. Often, these workflows contain a sequence of steps that can be programmed onto an automated liquid handler unit, to prepare many test samples in parallel using a system that couples a robotic arm executing X/Y coordinate mapping of specific actions with several pumps that drive the aspiration and dispensing of liquids. Automated liquid handlers are common in the biopharmaceutical space, where large corporations have access to sufficient amounts of capital for purchase of dozens of liquid handlers (the most sophisticated of which fall into the $200-$300k range). It’s worthwhile to research the available options and lean on your network of experts with experience using a particular unit under consideration to solicit an informed opinion on the proposed purchase.

Digitized, automated lab operations will pay dividends

The upfront costs of automation are not insignificant and perhaps tempting to postpone until revenue generation allows investment in such upgrades. However, the reduction in human errors alone can offset the expense by avoiding mistakes that might undermine client confidence in laboratory competence. Competition in the cannabis testing space is ever-increasing and client retention is paramount to sustained revenue generation. Furthermore, with skilled labor demanding higher premiums in comparison to pre-pandemic wages, the cost-benefit ratio of onboarding automation to augment the productivity of a leaner staff positively impacts the bottom line by paying for itself in the first year in ideal cases.

Kimberly Ross

Chief Science Officer at Peak Compliance, LLC

Kim is the chief scientific officer at Peak Compliance, LCC, and has written for Analytical Cannabis on lab practices since 2019. She earned her PhD from the University of Colorado's Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology program and is currently a contributing member to ASTM's D37 Committee for development of standards for cannabis products and processes and a participant in the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division's cannabis regulatory workgroup.


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