Sitting down with a pair of shears in front of a fresh-cut pound of cannabis, pruning scraggly flowers into beautiful, saleable marijuana buds isn’t just a gig for “trimmigrants” to take up in between stops on the festie circuit—it’s a legitimate job.
It takes learned and skilled hands to remove fan leaves and other unwanted scraps from cannabis flower—vital labor for the marijuana industry, which is treating this once-seasonal gig as full-time work. Some year-round, legal marijuana farms pay trimmers $18 an hour or more, with benefits.
And as the demand for cannabis grows to tens of billions of dollars, demand for reliable and skilled cannabis-trimming is certain to grow. But this is 2017. And marijuana and Silicon Valley share many of the same values, including the regrettable ones.
So, naturally, robots are trying to steal this job away from humans.
Business Insider brings us first word of not just a “machine-trimmer”—the likes of which have been on the market since before Colorado and Washington legalized recreational cannabis—but a bona-fide “trimming robot.”
Boston-based Bloom Automation says their $20,000 trimming machine uses “cameras and computer vision” to determine what should be lopped off and what should stay, and can process a 18-inch branch in as little as four minutes.
The machine is about three feet high. An actual human is required to work the machine and feed it branches onto a conveyor belt. The robot then does the rest, using a “proprietary algorithm” to instruct a robotic arm above the belt how to best give the buds a perfect trim.
There are some stated benefits to having a robot do humans’ work, as Business Insider points out.
First, robots aren’t trafficked humans. As the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, black-market cannabis farms often rely on at-risk youth to do hard work for criminally-low pay. Women are often sought for this work, and resulting sexual assaults are rampant—and rarely prosecuted.
Even if trimmers are treated and paid well, it’s hard work that guarantees eye strain and repetitive stress injuries—which may or may not be worth the $100 to $200 per pound trimming can earn.
At the same time, Bloom’s robots are expensive. Someone relying on cheap labor that is then exploited is not necessarily going to spring for a robot that costs as much as a car—particularly not when the robot can only process a pound of cannabis a day, as Bloom Automation claims its robot can do.
As it is, the death of the hand-trimmer wielding a pair of Fiskars has been rumored before. For years, the market has tried to woo cost-conscious growers with machine trimmers. But for the most part, these have been haphazard, ham-fisted glorified weed-whackers that mangle fragile bud, knocking away vital trichomes and terpenes while sloppily removing the fan leaves.
Is Bloom’s trim-robot any better?
Hard to say. Founder and CEO Jon Gowa says the machine has about “80 percent accuracy.” Which means it won’t complain about the music, take long lunch breaks or steal from the larf pile. At the same time, the pound-a-day pace will mean decent-sized grow outfits will be waiting weeks for trimmed harvest—or be required to buy multiple machines.
For these reasons, most high-end brands of marijuana flower still rely on skilled labor. Because to trim cannabis quickly and effectively is a skill!
Gowa hopes to test out the machines during Colorado’s harvest this summer, with nationwide sales this fall. But, he insists, the rise of his robot won’t put any people out of work.
“We’re not aiming to take anyone’s job—just improve efficiency and alleviate a significant pain point,” he told Business Insider.
In any event, it’ll be some time yet before a robotic trimmer is perfected. So those jobs are safe for now, but the robots are coming. As they are for everyone else.