Robo pot: Aphria says automation key to low-cost cannabis production

Automation is ramping up at Aphria as cannabis is set to become legal in Canada.

Automation and jobs to increase as company expands, says co-founder

Aphria is trying to find ways to automate different parts of the cultivation of cannabis for cost control. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

On the eve of legalized recreational marijuana and concerns about supply shortage, one of Canada's largest producers believes automated machines will be the key to producing more cannabis. 

Leamington-based Aphria currently has supply agreements with every province and Yukon, boasting about plans to produce roughly 20,000 kilograms of marijuana a month by spring. 

As they expand their footprint to 3 million square feet, they're constantly looking at automation to reduce costs and maintain quality, said co-founder John Cervini.

"It's what's made us the low-cost producer, helped us to maintain that low-cost producer status," he said during a recent tour of the facility. 

Robots and humans

One part in the process of growing marijuana that Aphria said is almost ready to become automated is the beginning of the plant's life cycle. 

In a bright, white room with industrial equipment, there are three machines that have a claw-like arm hanging above a conveyer belt. 

This machine will use a robotic claw to gently place cuttings from Aphria's mother plants into trays to grow new plants. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"This particular robot in front of us is placing cannabis cuttings into a fresh Rockwool cube to grow roots," said Cervini, who was showing the process with a video. 

Once the three machines are running, Cervini believes it will only take five days to process 250,000 cuttings, which grow to become plants.

Currently, Cervini said six full-time employees can produce 15,000 cuttings a week — production levels that the three machines would be able to reach in three hours. 

Job losses from robotic gains?

Aphria has between 400 to 500 employees and are constantly looking to hire more qualified people, said Cervini, and automation won't limit a growing workforce. 

"Honestly we don't see any actual job loss from the automation. What we're going to see is maybe some repurposing of jobs," he said.

Aphria co-founder John Cervini says more automation will come as they work toward scaling their facility up to 3 million square feet. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Using the automation of cuttings as an example, Cervini said the six to eight people now in charge of manual processing, and potentiality more, will be in charge of making sure those higher targets are reached with automation.

Aphria is still weeks away from getting those machines running — but even after they're fully functional, the automated process won't be able to start until Health Canada gives them a green light.

'Ebb and flow' of Health Canada

As Aphria anticipates those approvals, Cervini said the government body has been handling the legalization of an entire industry well. 

"You could see there was times when approvals took longer and then all the sudden approvals took less time, so there's been an ebb and flow of timing with Health Canada," he said. 

An employee sorts marijuana on a production line at Aphria in Leamington. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"If you look at what's been accomplished in a very short period of time in Canada around regulations for cannabis, I have to do nothing but commend Health Canada."

He said the automation plans go beyond the cuttings process.

The packaging and labelling aspects are also ready for automation, according to Cervini, as well as a trimming line currently staffed with about 12 people, which he envisions to be done by robotic arms in the future.

Tap on the player below to watch Aphria's pot bots in action:

How Aphria uses automation to grow pot

CBC News Windsor

3 years ago
Aphria co-founder John Cervini explains why the company looks at automation as it expands. 1:09