pre-roll automation

Pre-Roll Automation for Mass Production Offers Astounding Abundance

by | May 15, 2024

pre-roll automation

Written by Gregory Frye

Gregory Frye is a strategic advisor, storyteller, and founder of Gregory Frye’s PlotPoint Rebellion, where he consults with start-ups and scale-ups on all things strategy. He also enjoys ruffling corporate feathers whenever the opportunity arises.

To automate or not to automate cannabis pre-roll production?

It’s a tricky question for cannabis operators already struggling with tight margins and intense regulations.

And even when an operator has enough demand to justify an investment in pre-roll automation, how do they know which machine to trust?

The short answer: they don’t. Not without doing some serious homework and firsthand research.

pre-roll packaging machine, packing cannabis pre-rolls, 
pre-roll automation
Efficient pre-roll automation depends on quality equipment.

Knockboxes vs. Pre-Roll Automation

Knockboxes are quite popular among smaller pre-roll manufacturers, so it makes sense to start here.

If you’re unfamiliar, these devices typically feature a sturdy, box-like frame that holds a set number of pre-roll cones. After placing each cone (from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on the device), the operator fills a tray with ground cannabis and places it over the cones. The device then uses vibration or a mechanical plunger to “knock” the cannabis into the cones.

While this solution makes sense for smaller operators, it does have drawbacks when you need to scale.

Florian Lorenz, B2B Sales Director at CanAdelaar, sees two stories playing out in pre-roll production: the knockboxes versus automation.

“We looked into both types of machines and went with automation because labor is one of the most cost-intensive parts of production, and you have to cut costs somehow to keep your production costs low for the end customer,” Lorenz said.

Taylor Balduff, owner of Forbidden Farms in Washington state, ran into this exact issue. Before switching to pre-roll automation, Balduff’s team was using a boatload of knockbox-like contraptions to fill pre-roll orders, and it just wasn’t enough.

“Production was so expensive, and we were never able to get ahead on pre-roll orders,” Balduff said.

Ever since switching to pre-roll automation, Forbidden Farms has so much production muscle they even co-pack for other brands in the state in addition to packing their own pre-roll SKUs.

Jay VanderLaan, owner of Rare Michigan Genetics, ran into another notable issue with knockboxes before switching over to automation: human error and production consistency.

“It’s hard to produce quality pre-rolls at scale when you got humans doing it. Aside from human error, you got one guy that can produce 1000 pre-rolls in his eight-hour shift, and you got another guy that’s not capable of producing more than 500,” VanderLaan said.

VanderLaan continued that with human hands, there is more unwanted variance in how the joints are packed and folded. “Having a reliable piece of equipment that can provide that consistency is priceless.”

The Reliability Issue in Cannabis Pre-Roll Automation

Automation is a must if you want to scale your pre-roll production and have a healthy business model – yet it’s not uncommon to hear the gut-wrenching stories of operators who pulled the trigger on automation only to end up with a total lemon of a machine.

“I can’t tell you how many companies I work with that have a joint machine 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,” Balduff said.

For example, one popular pre-roll automation machine on the market (hint: their name rhymes with latex) claims to handle infused joints and Dutch-crown folds, yet authentic reviews on Reddit point out how the machine is essentially a piece of junk full of 3D-printed parts, horrible changeover times, and the pre-roll quality results in customer complaints.

Harrison Bard of Custom Cones USA described many of the automated pre-roll machines on the market as “finicky with a lot of limitations.”

One of the biggest reasons for these limitations is that a lot of this pre-roll technology is so new and doesn’t always come with adequate customer support, which results in too much downtime and a loss of investment for operators.

Conversely, companies like Hefestus – which has been working on pre-roll automation for over a decade – have garnered a reputation for reliability and versatility, according to Lorenz, Balduff,  Bard, and VanderLaan.

“Hefestus’s technology has been around the longest, and the machine has proven to work at this point,” Bard said, adding that Hefestus is his go-to recommendation for operators who can meet the demand.

Balduff and team were so happy with their Hefestus pre-roll machine – doing about 300,000 quality pre-rolls per month – that they bought a second machine to double their output.

If Balduff had chosen poorly on which automation supplier to run with, he’d be telling a different story today.

Infused Pre-Rolls Have Entered the Chat

Infused pre-rolls have rapidly ascended in popularity, capturing 42.3% of the market segment, according to an industry report by Headset.

While there are multiple ways to infuse a joint, it adds a whole layer of complexity for operators already struggling with production bottlenecks.

In essence, there are two ways to infuse a joint. You can either infuse it after it’s filled through injection or coating the paper with whatever type of extract, or you can infuse the plant biomass with oil, diamonds, kief, etc.

Doing this manually almost feels like a death sentence to any business model simply because pre-rolls are already labor-intensive.

Yet, if you’re going to automate infused joints, you need an easy-to-clean machine that can handle all that super sticky cannabis material without gumming up all those moving parts.

For example, Hefestus’s automated pre-roll machines are great for infusing cannabis biomass – but how does their machine handle all that sticky plant material?

Shahar Yamay, Cannabis Division Leader at Hefestus, revealed the secret during a quick email interview:

“If we’re talking mass infusion, our machines can handle almost everything – kief, distillate, shatter, bubble hash, etc. – because we don’t over-design,” Yamay said.

“Our automated pre-roll machines are designed to be simple, and the flow of the material into the joint is super quick, which gives us an advantage with mass infusion.”

And then you’ve got automation like Sorting Robotics – which integrated with Hefestus technology, Yamay revealed – to create a system that automatically infuses joints by injecting them with a needle after they’re rolled.

The choice between manual and automated pre-roll production is a pivotal decision for operators.

Automation offers scalability and consistency, but the stakes are high, and the right technological investment is crucial.

Success stories like Hefestus, Forbidden Farms, and Rare Michigan Genetics highlight the benefits of robust, reliable automation systems that can manage the complexities of modern production, including infused pre-rolls.

For operators, it’s a matter of choosing growth over stagnation. Investing in proven, well-supported machines positions companies to meet growing demands and embrace market complexities.

As the industry advances, staying informed and making strategic choices will be essential for those looking to thrive in this competitive space.

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