Equipment and industrial automation manufacturers are racing to capture market share as legalized cannabis penetrates the U.S. and international markets. Decades of antidotal, myth-based cultivation methodologies are being replaced with legitimate, research-based agricultural science. We see eight trends emerging that commercial cannabis growers should consider as they look to scale and attract new customers in this “gold rush” market for cannabis cultivation companies.
The Application of Emerging and Developed Technologies from Mainstream Horticulture
2021 will see increased sales of systems for new and renovated commercial applications where cultivators seek to maximize both yield and worker efficiency in three key areas: mobile benching, LED lighting, and hydroponic delivery systems.
Mobile benching originally designed for flood and drain horticulture is a prime example of adapting technology-based systems from traditional greenhouse production for cannabis. Flood and drain systems, ideal for mono-stage/crop irrigation, are prone to cause nutritional deficiency created by excess fertilizer buildup in the medium. Commercial irrigation manufacturers have learned how to reap the benefits of these canopy space maximizing table systems for cannabis cultivation while overcoming their inherent agronomic limitations by modifying them for top feed delivery. Mobile benching will see the greatest relevance in greenhouse and retrofit applications. When maximizing canopy tier limits, vertical farm systems will continue to be a common choice for new construction where indoor space is limited.
LED lighting has also been making strides, with manufacturers hitting milestones in greenhouse technology that will further shift the market away from HID dominance. 2021 will see a trend towards slim profile LED fixtures with large coverage areas for supplemental greenhouse lighting projects in locations where high usage rates are necessary for extended photoperiods and increased flowering DLI. This becomes even more relevant in terms of the definable light spectrum when natural light is already providing sufficient UV, green, and far-red for optimal growth. A targeted increase in just blue and red within the PAR spectrum under these conditions yields significantly more growth per watt used than traditional HID sources, not only from increased efficiency but also the efficacy of the supplementary light provided.
Commercial cultivation centers will continue the switch from price-inflated liquid “cannabis” nutrients to dry salt agronomic formulations, putting increased emphasis on their efficient and cost-effective delivery. The competing terms fertigation and nutrigation will become commonplace in a cannabis cultivator’s vocabulary as the industry of automated hydroponic irrigation solutions continues to boom with sophisticated advancements. Antiquated systems created towards the end of the 20th century designed for large scale mono-crop, mono-stage agriculture have been replaced with intelligent systems that provide precision control for simultaneous and continuous crop production of multiple varietals in vertically integrated companies The migration of methodology will continue to be stimulated by the cannabis producer’s need to offset marginal market price decrease with a lower cost of production.
While some simple systems venturi injection systems will retain limited supplementary relevance, more and more facilities over the coming year will turn to newer, high-tech master irrigation control units for accurate and reliable delivery of varied nutritional formulations throughout concurrent growth cycles. In addition, intelligent sensors are able to trigger irrigation events from real-time data collected by moisture sensors in the media for optimal distribution frequency.
Cannabis Specific Innovation & Research
The next year will see the emergence of three themes gaining ground in cannabis greenhouse and indoor Building Management System (BMS) innovation.
- A transition from overly technical engineered systems to simple outcome-based settings that cultivation managers can employ, by utilizing advanced logic within the controls software to achieve the desired result.
- Increasing recognition that centralized controls are necessary to effectively and efficiently monitor and manage system data for agronomic analysis and production optimization.
- Recognition that everything in the production cycle is connected, from equipment to operations.
High-efficiency industrial trim machines which require significantly less manual labor to finish manicuring flower will be the choice of operators for post-harvest production. Critical research is also being conducted and applied as multiple technologies compete to become the industry standard for drying and curing cannabis flower. 2021 will also see a shift toward microwave-assisted industrial-scale cannabis extraction which recovers up to 95% of APIs from the cannabis material with less time and labor than previous extraction methods.
Most cannabis cultivation research has been performed with a single cultivar but studies done across multiple cultivars have definitively revealed different morphological expressions based on environmental conditions. Would you expect a Cherry Tomato plant to react the same way to different habitats as a Roma? This is most relevant for equipment in terms of the definable light spectrum LEDs can provide. Custom LEDs designed for a specific cultivar will emerge as operators following the pattern of big agriculture research, optimize and commit to producing individual cultivars under mono-crop conditions for maximum value. Vertical integration strategies, once the Holy Grail of cannabis start-ups and still very relevant in some markets, will need to be reevaluated under these changing conditions.
Covid-19 changed the landscape of how business is done and for cannabis facilities, this is most impactful in the arena of air quality and physical barriers. Photocatalytic carbon filtration has been the standard for cannabis HVAC systems but expect amplified sales of supplemental air purification technologies and entry air curtains with the increased focus on customer and worker safety as the world struggles to establish control over this deadly virus.
An Increase in Regulatory Requirements
Demand for intelligent fertigation systems will be driven further by trends towards increased ecological/environmental market regulation, spurring the concurrent replacement of drain-to-waste systems with “zero-waste” recirculatory systems used in mainstream hydroponic greenhouse agriculture. On the consumable side, coco-coir mediums, which saw an enormous increase as the preferred hydroponic solution over the previous decade driven by its efficacy and efficiency with basement style drain-to-waste systems, will begin to taper off and revert to traditional methods (NFT/DWC/Rockwool) adapted to the needs of commercial cannabis cultivation in a recirculatory hydroponic system. However, the greatest challenge manufacturers face in the arena of fertigation control is a shift from traditional, simple high-volume crop production cycles to meet the demand of complex manufacturing schedules cannabis companies are placing on their cultivation centers necessary to offer diverse, steady-state consumer cannabis goods within the marketplace.
Emerging energy requirements, such as Massachusetts’s 36 w/sq ft or less light consumption regulation, will force more operators in licensure or expansion to utilize all LED lighting in some markets. However, expect multi-state operators with the foresight to accept the higher upfront price tag across all their indoor production facilities to reduce long-term risk, lower operating expenditure, and preserve a little more of the environment we all depend on.
The Emergence of Mega Corps
Shifting public perception coupled with increased decriminalization of THC-rich cannabis and the global surge of CBD remedies has been attracting the attention of large multinational industry giants that previously avoided the industry over legality and image concerns. Biden’s recent presidential victory, coupled with the U.S. House of Representatives approval of a bill to federally legalize THC potent cannabis on December 4th, 2020 will likely overturn that trend in the States and further open the international equipment market. It’s too early to say if sweeping change will reach the industry in 2021, but expect aggregate cannabis equipment prices to decline as manufacturer supply surges and mega-corporations with very deep pockets spend millions to price out and buy out smaller competitors with less economy of scale that once dominated the cannabis equipment and automation markets.
A Greater Focus on Preventative Maintenance
Many large cannabis cultivation companies making the initial leap to agricultural automation experienced early and acute failure stemming from improper maintenance of the super systems for grow room environmental control and nutritional delivery. Seven-figure crop losses have not been an uncommon occurrence leading experienced operators that survive the financial hardship to put greater emphasis on diagnostics and preventative maintenance of essential automation components. Look for more cannabis companies to turn to CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System) solutions to keep their crops thriving under steady-state production.
A Move Towards Transparency and Legitimacy
Information control, selling exorbitantly overpriced goods by secrecy and hype campaigns, will continue to decline among cannabis equipment vendors as industry legitimacy is providing a comparative database for consumers to vet these products against. Reputable equipment distributors have moved away from representing manufacturers with misleading claims in order to provide true transparency, value, and customer satisfaction. Misleading and contradictory statements about equipment performance will be quickly addressed as the market grows.
Risk Reduction in Order Management
A final trend of note materializing from the still young but aging cannabis industry is a greater understanding of the often extreme challenges surrounding the facility design-build process. Multistate operators experiencing the adversity of achieving effective and efficient procurement timing will continue in 2021 to move away from “just in time” electronic wholesale distribution toward distributors capable of warehousing key equipment components for on-schedule implementation. The economic losses from suddenly requiring a large volume of equipment storage coupled with construction delays stemming from late deliveries have led these more experienced industry leaders to turn to cannabis equipment distributors willing to reduce their client’s risk by preemptive reception and storage of tools and equipment used during the build-out.