The cannabis industry is on fire. The states that have decided to legalize the herb for medical and recreational use are collecting taxes from the new revenue stream, and investors around the country are eager to partake in the various stages of its ever-growing supply chain.
Since California approved its medical use in 1996 with Proposition 215, cannabis has left Haight-Ashbury for Street. Be it Midwestern housewives selling CBD salves to soothe achy joints or a Seattle budtender offering up a bodacious new product strain, the stigma of cannabis use has gone up in smoke.
All of this equates to a formerly clandestine industry that is now being given an American-size makeover. While navigating some state and federal hurdles, the industry has created a unique niche for itself that is one part industrial farming and one part Apple-slick marketing. As companies find new ways to isolate and process cannabinoids and as the consumer base continues to grow, manufacturers show their flexibility and creativity to meet the needs of this fledgling industry.
A maturing market
When GreenBroz Inc., a manufacturer of cannabis and hemp harvesting solutions, first got its start, 19 states had legalized medical marijuana, but only two had legalized it for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. Today, marijuana is legal for medical use in 33 states and legal for recreational use in 11 states. Several states are expected to follow suit in the near term.
According to The U.S. Cannabis Cultivation Report: 2019 Legal and Illicit Output by State, total output is forecasted to grow to 34.4 million pounds by 2025, but that does not take into account the additional states that will soon transition into the legal regulated space. To process all of that output, GreenBroz, a manufacturer of cannabis and hemp harvesting solutions, manufactures trimmers, sorters, extractors, conveyors and packaging lines, and product counting machines. The equipment is primarily made from 316 stainless steel sheet metal and tube sourced in the United States and is produced at the company’s Las Vegas facility. Last year, GreenBroz hit nearly $13 million in sales.
Although Cullen Raichart, the company’s founder, describes himself as a tinkerer, he had no background in metals manufacturing prior to launching the business. But, he did have an eye for how to improve on pre-existing designs. Back when California was still among the few states to offer its residents legal cannabis, equipment manufacturers were struggling to keep up with demand. To add insult to injury, their equipment wasn’t up to snuff. The blade on the most popular trimmer at the time was overdue for an upgrade. Raichart recognized this and set out to produce a better blade.
“I had no experience in SolidWorks, but a guy at a local makerspace gave me a hand,” he says. “In about 5 mins., we had designed a blade, but it wasn’t quite right. Serendipitously, I discovered that by flipping it on its side, it created the perfect cut pattern. Right away, I knew that I was on to something, and, in fact, it’s the same blade we use today.”
Soon after, Raichart designed a larger machine around his initial blade design, which was what inspired marijuana farmers – and investors – to take interest in his work. Eight years later, his trimmer is completely automated and one of the most popular on the market. The machine loads itself, checks to ensure that everything is processing properly, weighs the product and then automatically unloads it.
Over the years, the design of all of GreenBroz’s equipment has advanced. The company has moved away from simple on/off switches and timers to PLCs and more intelligent controls in general.
Raichart says that the process of perfecting the design of his equipment has also influenced the way he buys the machines and equipment he needs to produce his line of harvesting products.
“Our customers rely on the value of quality equipment, and the same goes for me” Raichart says. “Throughout my experiences of building and growing GreenBroz, I’ve not only learned how to design, build and develop new equipment, I’ve also learned a lot about purchasing equipment.”
When GreenBroz relocated from its original location in San Diego to Las Vegas, these lessons were quickly put to work. All of the old equipment from the San Diego facility was sold and completely upgraded at the new location.
From 2-D to 3-D
Back in San Diego, Raichart started by making his harvesting equipment out of plastic, but he quickly saw the value-add that stainless steel would deliver. To transition over to making metal components, he bought his first flat-bed laser and press brake and began familiarizing himself with other sophisticated metal fabricating processes. He also attended annual Fabtech trade shows to see what others in his space were using.
“Before I bought my first laser, I was at Fabtech in Las Vegas, looking through a window at this laser machine going through its motions,” Raichart says. “I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I watched it cut a tube and then zip over to cut a sheet of metal on the same machine. I was just watching it through this window, thinking, ‘wow, this is the coolest machine ever.’”
Fast forward to today, and Raichart has a similar model by the same machine builder in the Las Vegas shop. The BLM 6-kW LC5 combination flat sheet/tube laser, which he purchased in March of 2019, features tower automation for material management with a transversal configuration. This combination flat sheet/tube laser cutting system and its capabilities have further inspired Raichart to improve and enhance the design of his products.
For several years, GreenBroz primarily processed sheet metal, cutting it on a flat-bed laser, bending it into the required shapes on a press brake, and then welding and bolting the components into the final structure. Raichart describes his press brake operator as a pro, but says that some of the U shapes they were trying to produce were fairly labor intensive. For starters, if the sheet metal wasn’t perfectly flat during laser cutting, precise cuts were difficult to achieve, meaning that the bending process could also be compromised.
“When we only had the flat-bed laser, we didn’t use any tube,” Raichart says. “But as time passed, we realized that the structures we were bending would be so much easier and quicker to build if we started with tube. The problem was that we were already using a lot of our sheet capability. Investing in an adaptor to process tube on the flat-bed seemed counterproductive from a capacity standpoint, but also in regard to the time it would take to reconfigure the equipment every time we needed to switch from sheet to tube.”
Raichart says that the move to Las Vegas served as the perfect impetus to retool, which was when he started thinking about the laser he’d seen at Fabtech a few years back. The time it took to switch from sheet to tube and vice versa had happened in the blink of an eye, he recalled. After getting the keys to the new facility, the BLM LC5 was one of the first pieces of equipment to grace the new shop floor.
“With the LC5, we’ve been able to process parts so fast and precisely that we’ll probably get back to more welding,” he notes. “The overarching goal has always been for our components to fit perfectly together, and the LC5 helps us to achieve that. Parts are always square and fit-up is always perfect.”
Today, 75 percent of the material the company processes is sheet, but 25 percent is tube. Based on the growth the company has seen over the past few years, GreenBroz will most likely need to invest in a second LC5 in the future. Fortunately, it’s billed as a compact solution for companies that manufacture sheet and tube but that might not have the volume or space to accommodate two separate machines.
Almost 10 years after Raichart first sat down at the makerspace in San Diego to get help with SolidWorks, he’s still using the program. Machine components are designed in SolidWorks and then imported into the LC5’s powerful software to render them into programs that the laser can interpret. The process is simple and quick and it has facilitated GreenBroz’s continual design optimization strategy.
“We’ve redesigned all of the stands and supports for all of our machines – it’s all about rethinking and rebuilding,” he says. “The first machine, the Alchemist, that I invented in 2012 has been the most interesting machine to me because it’s been through so many iterations. It’s never been a big, monetized machine, but it’s probably the most mature machine that we’ve built to date.”
Based on the perfected Alchemist machine design, Raichart and the team at GreenBroz were able to step up to the plate when Covid-19 was wreaking havoc on the PPE supply chain.
“We recognized the severity of the Covid-19 situation early on,” Raichart says. “And after seeing some of the PPE remediation solutions people were putting out there to sterilize coveralls, gowns and masks, we said, ‘We can build a PPE remediation machine based on the Alchemist.’
“And because we have instant prototype ability, immediate access to tube and sheet and just because of who we’ve become over the years, we were able to retrofit the Alchemist,” he continues. “We made the PPE remediation machine in two weeks. It was an amazing press of energy and collaborative effort with a few other fabricators in the area.”
The speed in which the machine was produced was facilitated by Raichart’s keen adeptness at looking at a design and being able to tweak it for better and new uses. It was also facilitated by the LC5, which allowed GreenBroz to cut the machine frame out of tube.
“If we didn’t have it, we would have been bending flat sheet like we used to do back in the day,” he concludes. “Whether it’s for our current products or for the PPE remediation machine, doing it the old way just wouldn’t work. It would have taken too much time, and as we all know, there was no time to spare.”