Using pilot plants to launch cannabis food and beverages
First Steps: Pilot plants are an essential aspect of product development when entering the cannabis-infused food and beverage market.
Ever since the advent of legal cannabis product commercialization, companies developing and producing these infused foods and beverages have sought viable equipment to help them create consistent, high-quality products for recreational and medical cannabis consumers.
Often, the equipment came from the realm of traditional food and beverage pilot plant production—smaller-scaled versions of machines typically found in full-scale plant operations, but with enough functionality to meet the needs of upstart cannabis food and beverage processors.
But the legal cannabis food and beverage industry continues to expand across the U.S. at a rapid rate, quickly opening the opportunity for larger-scale production—particularly when it comes to the more-mainstream commercial potential of products infused with cannabidiol (CBD). So while pilot plant equipment will continue to meet the needs of some cannabis food and beverage brands, others will be looking to expand into full-scale versions capable of larger production runs.
But even when expanding into larger-scale production, owning your own pilot production capabilities brings a number of strategic benefits.
John Deitz, president, Deitz Co., Wall, NJ, notes that cannabis food and beverage brands will find a number of benefits from investing in their own pilot plant equipment:
- You keep your proprietary information in house, such as formulation, packaging, labeling, and marketing, as well as final customer data
- The quality, quantity, and scheduling will be completely under your control
- You can make changes to any aspect of the process at will and try new things without having to interface with a third-party vendor
- Once you amortize the capital layout, and put the proper expertise in place, your ongoing expenses should be lower vs. using a third party
One of the top benefits of operating your own pilot plant and/or production is convenience and efficiency, allowing companies to start production on your own schedule, notes David M. Miles, executive vice-president, MTI BioScience, LLC, Raleigh, NC. “You can also process as much as you want.”
In the long run, it also saves time and money. “You don’t waste time arranging the logistics of sending ingredients to a remote location or arranging for the travel of staff,” says Miles. It also eliminates the risk of lost or damaged ingredients or samples during shipping.
The production experience is also invaluable. “Developers receive firsthand exposure to how the process affects the products’ functional and organoleptic characteristics,” says Miles. “This experience and information makes them more efficient at developing products.”
Personal management of pilot plant production also brings a higher level of accuracy to the process, notes Miles. “You can be sure that the process being used in your R&D is truly representative of the production process. Generally, standard pilot plants cannot provide this level of accuracy. As such, products processed on remote pilot plants often must undergo further development in order to be processed at the production level.”
Equipment suppliers will also typically provide customers with process support and advice to help ensure success. “With a third party, you are subject to their equipment’s limitations and staff performance,” says Miles.
Also, due to the absence of standardized federal regulatory oversight of the cannabis market, cannabis food and beverage brands seeking production support would need to do so in the state where they will sell their products. Companies currently cannot ship cannabis-infused products or ingredients across state lines.
Despite the benefits of controlling all aspects of production in-house, some cannabis companies and brands will still rely on third-party partners for pilot plant runs and other aspects of production. This is particularly true when just getting started in the cannabis-infused food and beverage industry.
In addition to selling pilot plant and laboratory equipment for beverage production—including hot-fill, aseptic, and pasteurized products—MTI BioScience offers commercial-level pilot capabilities. “Our Miniature Plant Trials enable customers to process products at accurate commercial conditions without having an actual in-house pilot plant,” says Miles. “Thus, it eliminates the initial investment in the equipment, as well as the costs for a facility and staff to support and operate a pilot plant. Additionally, as experts in continuous thermal processing, we can assure our clients that the process being used in the lab is truly representative of the production process.”
Relying on a third-party partner can dramatically reduce the initial capital investment, notes Deitz. And depending on the level of research, development and production expertise a company has on staff, working with a third-party production partner could help accelerate time to market. “An established and trusted third party gives you the benefit of their experience, possibly allowing you to produce cost-effective, high-quality product much sooner,” he says. “If there is unscheduled downtime, quality-control issues or other unexpected issues with the line, the third party may be responsible for these costs.” Also, he notes, if for any reason you want to halt production or change directions, you can discontinue using the third party and will not have to bear the incurred investment in pilot plant equipment.
In order to provide a reliable and comprehensive analysis of a food or beverage intended for commercial sale, pilot plants need to include a complete process from start to finish.
For bottling edibles, this might include a packaging system featuring a bottle unscrambler and powered turntable to ready the empty bottles for filling and meter them into the line, notes Deitz. It might also include a counter that counts the proper number of items for each bottle and fills them into the container, a desiccant inserter, a capper, and a labeler. Then tamper-evident protection needs to applied, notes Deitz.
“It’s theoretically possible to apply these plastic shrinkbands to dropper bottles, pill bottles, spray bottles and other containers by hand and then heat them manually, but it’s entirely impractical, time-consuming and difficult to get the quality seal needed to assure a level of confidence in the tamper-evident protection,” says Deitz. “An automated neck banding machine and heat shrink tunnel can apply these with a perfect seal every time, then direct them downstream to a turntable for accumulation and cartoning.”
Deitz Co. offers an Entry Level Automation series of machines suited to use for various types of cannabis products, including options that can fit on an ordinary tabletop.
When developing still cannabis-infused beverages, Miles notes that the pilot plant must deliver the proper thermal exposure to the products. He notes that this requires that:
- The tubes are sized for proper turbulence
- The pump can handle the products and pressures
- The heat exchangers and heat sources are sized properly to provide the right heating rates for the product
- Steam injection and vacuum cooling are accurate to production
- The hold tubes are sized properly for the required processes
- Cooling steps are sized properly
- In-line homogenization is accurate and at the right location/temperature
Depending on the specific types of cannabis-infused beverages targeted for production, other equipment and technology can come into play. “Continuous thermal processes, whether hot-fill, pasteurization, extended shelf-life (ESL), high-acid aseptic processing, or low-acid aseptic processing all change the products,” says Miles. “Thus, having accurate continuous-flow thermal processors is critical in developing products.”
Although FDA has not yet established regulatory oversight of the cannabis food and beverage industry, best practices dictate that products still follow FDA guidelines in the interim. Therefore, sterilizing and/or pasteurizing cannabis-infused still beverages is a must.
Other equipment required for proper analysis of beverage prototypes might include pH meters, viscometers, microscopes, and Brix meters, notes Miles.
Following established FDA protocols for traditional foods and beverages will help position cannabis companies for success when it comes to existing state regulatory oversight—and eventual federal guidelines. “From a processing perspective, products infused with ingredients derived from cannabis or hemp typically need to be treated with the attention given to food and pharmaceutical products to help ensure consistent product quality and efficacy, even if the regulatory situation may be cloudy,” says Rene M. Medina, executive vice president, Gericke USA Inc., Somerset, NJ. “This means the ingredients need a high level of uniformity from batch to batch, and the process needs to operate in a sanitary environment. In addition, since product development involves trying different formulations and ideas day after day, it requires versatile equipment that can be quickly cleaned, adjusted, and returned to service for the next test.”
Whether the end product is a food, beverage, powder, or tablet, the key to efficient product development and testing is to ensure the raw materials are in the proper condition every time and at every step in the process, notes Medina. “This is a reason we’ve had a number of cannabis/hemp companies install our Nibbler line of lump breakers. Many dry, bulk ingredients agglomerate into lumps when sitting in storage and when sitting in between processing steps, and these lumps need to be removed before the ingredient can be properly fed, conveyed, and/or mixed. When ingredients are discharged from a sack or bulk bag, for example, processing them through the Nibbler ensures all of the material meets the desired particle size.”
The lump breaking equipment reduces particles down to as little as 1 mm via attrition milling using a low-speed, high-torque, rotating paddle assembly that cuts the material without damaging the product, generating excessive fine particles, or adding to the heat history of the ingredients, notes Medina. “It has a hygienic design with woven wire screens in 316 stainless steel, continuously welded seams throughout, and polished internals to virtually eliminate the potential to harbor product or bacteria.” The entire basket, screen and front end can be easily removed and safely cleaned, she says.
Other equipment recommended for a pilot plant or small-scale production might include mixers to thoroughly combine liquid and dry ingredients and ingredient feeders to accurately dispense the desired amount of each ingredient into the process every time.