Medical Cannabis Supplier Automates Labeling

Feb. 14, 2023
Using Epson robots and printing technology, SunMed Growers eliminated the waste and extra time associated with its manual labeling operations and positioned its processes for both batch and individual product serialization.

Robots are no longer a tool reserved for the largest industrial companies, as evidenced by SunMed Growers, a Maryland-based medical cannabis grower. In its 300,000-sq.-ft. facility, which employs 150 people, SunMed Growers eliminated several manual tasks associated with its packaging and labeling operations using Epson robotic and labeling technologies.

Working with systems integrator Integrated Productivity Systems (IPSi),  SunMed Growers implemented a flexible robotic print-and-apply system centered around an Epson ColorWorks industrial, on-demand color label printer and Epson’s VT6L six-axis robot.

“People tend to think automation is suited only for manufacturing environments with high volume and high labor costs because it is out of reach for most businesses financially,” said Rick Schilling, owner of IPSi. “That is just not the case. The true benefit of automation is the ability to control processes, which is what SunMed was able to do by implementing the new system while also keeping cost in mind.”

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Automated packaging and labeling

The process of packaging SunMed Growers’ most popular products involves the production of two to four batches per day with each batch size requiring between 2,000-3,000 labels.

Justin Garcia, compliance manager at SunMed Growers, said dry flower is one of the company’s most popular products, of which “we make over 10,000 a week and all of those have to be labeled.”

Prior to implementation of the automated labeling system, SunMed Growers printed labels offline and used a rewinder to rewind labels onto a core. They then had a team manually apply the labels with a semi-automatic labeling system.

With such heavily manual operations, Jordane Fairchild, post-harvest manager at SunMed Growers, said the company experienced issues such as producing entire batches of labels with errors before any errors were detected. Such issues caused Fairchild to frequently be “worried that I accidentally sent labels with the wrong lot number.”

In the new automated print-and-apply labeling system, a one-to-one relationship exists between printing a label and applying it to a container. First, each product container is delivered by the induction sealing station to the print-and-apply system. Then each container’s corresponding label is printed on the ColorWorks CW-C6500P peel-and-present printer and picked and applied by the Epson VT6L robot.

The Epson VT6L robot features a 900mm reach and can handle payloads up to 6kg. The robot comes with a built-in controller and software for less than $15,000. Cleanroom ISO Class 4, IP67-rated, and 48V DC-powered mobile versions are also available.

Changed operations

Looking back on the labeling process before and after installation of the automated system, Fairchild said, “Before, we could run four batches by lunchtime and it would take the rest of the day to label them. Now, when we run a batch, all are packaged, labeled, and finished in one pass. It cut the amount of work time in half.”

The automated system also dramatically reduced label waste, as the previous process often required Fairchild to pre-print labels the day before labeling. It was not unusual for those pre-printed labels to become obsolete by the time they needed to be applied due to production changes or manual data entry errors.

“As with any new business, things change quickly,” said Schilling. “The feedback SunMed Growers got from the field and from their salespeople would prompt changes in packaging—and the minute the packaging changes, it creates a lot of complexity around label printing. This is the first machine I'm aware of that prints and applies labels on-demand and in color and is set up for next label out, which means that every label could be different.”

Schilling noted that SunMed Growers currently serializes at the batch level. But this automated system can deliver individual serialized containers, he added.

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