How To Navigate the Perils of Pre-Roll Automation

Industry veterans share advice and cautionary tales on investing in pre-roll automation.

The world of pre-roll automation is a perilous one for cannabis operators.

Get it right and you suddenly have a stronger, more sustainable business model.

Invest in the wrong pre-roll machine, and you’re stuck with an expensive piece of junk that barely runs, compromising the financial stability of your operation.

If you do choose the right pre-roll automation machine, the reduction in labor costs could cover your monthly payments on said machine – assuming you’ve got enough demand for your product.

Some of the top minds in the pre-roll space recently weighed in on the nuances of pre-roll automation, offering insights, cautionary tales, and which machines they like best.

Pre-Roll Automation: Measuring Efficiency vs. Demand

As with everything in cannabis, the question of pre-roll automation isn’t always so straightforward.

After all, these machines typically cost about $250,000 or more. And even if you have a line on a reliable machine that will actually do what you need it to, how does an operator know when it’s truly time to pull the trigger on automation?

Constantly stressing over production deadlines is usually a good indicator – but is it the only one?

“There’s a bunch of factors at play, but one of them is just a race to the bottom,” says Harrison Bard of Custom Cones USA, a one-stop shop for pre-roll manufacturers.

“Companies are trying to figure out how they can cut costs at every step of the process to make the cheapest price-point product, and they look to automation to try to lay off everyone and reduce their labor costs.”

But a lot of operators don’t necessarily have the demand to invest in that type of machine, Bard says. “Yeah maybe you can cut your costs by using an automated machine, but do you have enough demand to maximize the efficiency of that machine?”

On the flip side, pre-rolls without automation are labor-intensive, hogging precious hours that your team could devote to other SKUs. And even worse, if your production bottlenecks are causing you to miss deadlines, you risk losing shelf space to a competitor, which can lead to a downward spiral in business that nobody wants.

The Limitations of Automated Pre-Roll Technology

Imagine investing $250k or more on a piece of machinery that spent more time waiting for repairs than actually churning out pre-rolls.

This is a stumble that few cannabis operators can afford in a space with such tight margins, and yet many operators have experienced this exact nightmare scenario, burned by pre-roll automation that sucks instead of rolls.

“I just look at some of the machines out there, and there are so many moving parts and everything else,” says Taylor Balduff, owner at Forbidden Farms in Washington. 

“Those things have got to be just a maintenance nightmare. I can’t tell you how many companies I work with that have a joint machine that they don’t use because of how often it breaks, and they can’t ever get it to function. It’s a very common thing in this industry.”

Bard agrees, describing a lot of the pre-roll machines today as “finicky” with too much downtime. 

Manufacturing cannabis pre-rolls isn’t like rolling cigarettes, Bard explains, emphasizing that there’s a whole science behind getting the tobacco as uniform as possible. 

“Tobacco is super predictable, whereas in the cannabis space, people are trying to come up with a new strain every day,” Bard says. Even if you’re growing the same strains, the inevitable variances in moisture content and particle size, etc., will still cause issues with machines that are designed to do one thing over and over.

“And then, cigarettes come in one format or size, whereas in the cannabis industry, you want to make blunts, one-gram joints, joints with wood, glass, or ceramic tips,” Bard says. 

“So, if you’re making 15 different SKUs, which is what customers want, an automated machine becomes more of a headache because you really want to just do one thing and run it as long as possible without changeover.”

In essence, you want to find a machine that can do it all with little to no changeover time and minimal downtime.

Versatile Pre-Roll Automation That Actually Works?

For every ten cannabis operators stuck with a lemon of a pre-roll machine, there is one that has found a machine that does exactly what they need it to.

Forbidden Farms is a great example. Balduff reveals that his team is cranking out 300,000 pre-rolls per month and soon plans to double that number. How are they pulling it off?

The answer is more straightforward than it might seem. Balduff simply went with the pre-roll automation that has been around longer than any other, refining and improving their machine for more than 10 years: Hefestus.

“I would recommend Hefestus to anyone except my competitors,” Balduff jokes.

Balduff explains that he’s just bought a second machine from Hefestus, and he’s even rolling for four or five other cannabis brands in the state.

Bard is also familiar with Hefestus and quick to recommend their machines. “I think what separates their machines is they’re not overly complicated,” Bard says. 

“A lot of the other pre-roll machines that haven’t been around as long are overly engineered and too complex, making it difficult for the average employee to run and maintain it.”

There are cheaper options out there, Bard continues, “but Hefestus is definitely our go-to recommendation in terms of capabilities and track record, and by far the best option if you want premium options such as custom tips, shapes, and infusion.”

The Art of “Simplistic Sophistication” in Pre-Roll Technology

What is this company Hefestus exactly? And what makes their pre-roll technology so good?

Getting in touch with them was easy, and they were happy to talk.

“For us, it’s all about creating a machine that can roll the perfect joint,” says Shahar Yamay, who runs Hefestus’s cannabis division.

Yamay shares videos of their newest machines the AuraX and the AuraOne in action, and it’s hard not to fall in love, from the vibrating tables that create an even pack, to the pneumatic pistons that fold the joints – never twisting.

“Our motto is sophistic simplification,” Yamay says, “And we work closely with our clients to ensure minimum downtime and maximum ROI.”

Hefestus was actually founded by Yamay’s father in the early ‘90s, specializing in food packaging automation.

The company started developing pre-roll automation in 2014 for Israel’s robust medical cannabis program before expanding to Amsterdam, Canada, and the U.S., where they have their second office base.

That quest to roll the perfect joint meant countless iterations on their early machines, constantly listening to clients on how to improve and always backing them with 24/7 tech support.

“You can’t bullshit cannabis operators,” Yamay says. “They work in a tough space that is constantly changing, and the least we can do is make pre-roll manufacturing easy for them, no matter what kind of pre-rolls they’re producing.”

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