As an alternative to smoking cannabis, cannabis-infused sweets are growing in popularity. Though these edibles pose certain challenges for packaging processes, they also offer attractive growth opportunities for the cannabis market.

For a long time, cannabis was forbidden and taboo in many countries. This didn’t prevent people from using it for medicinal and recreational purposes, although secretly. Thanks to legalization, cannabis is more widely accepted and now trending around the world – in certain countries and U.S. states more than in others. 

Consumers not only enjoy smoking cannabis, but they are also seeking other forms of consumption, including cannabis-infused sweets. These edibles can offer relaxation and enjoyment at the same time, and include cannabis-infused chocolate, hard candy and gummies. A few years ago, chocolate was favored, but has since taken a backseat to gummies. In the U.S., gummies made up 60 percent of cannabis edibles sales in the first quarter of 2021. Other types of cannabis confectionery, such as chocolate, hard candy and taffy, represent less than 25 percent of the market.

A challenging environment

Despite rising consumer demand, the cannabis market poses a variety of challenges for manufacturers. Cannabis products are expensive and often have a short shelf life, so consumers only buy small quantities. Accordingly, edibles manufacturers not only need to package small batches, but to also protect the delicate products in the best possible way, e.g. via air-tight packages. 

Band sealing machines and small flow wrappers lend themselves to these tasks. Band sealers preserve the flavor and help maintain a long shelf life, while flow wrappers have been a mainstay for confectionery packaging for decades, ensuring air-tight seams and the ability to process small product sizes and batches. The main reason for low production volumes is legislation and correspondingly low levels of automation. Since the legal requirements for cannabis production in the United States vary widely, manufacturers – mostly startups – have to build small production facilities in individual states, which is a considerable financial burden. As a result, they can’t invest in large-scale equipment, keeping the industry’s automation level low.

In addition to state market regulations, federal laws prohibit selling cannabis in all U.S. states, so companies are not allowed to sell or transport their products across state lines. Moreover, federal banks have regulated the payment for cannabis products, urging customers to use cards from state banks or pay in cash. This makes cannabis equipment purchases and sales more difficult. 

If more states legalize cannabis, larger market gains are expected. Companies could scale up production and increase automation levels and performance. The market still holds great potential if manufacturers are able to overcome these obstacles on both the market and product side.

New products come with new requirements

Besides the complex market conditions, the product itself poses challenges to manufacturers as they are not easy to package. The products are small and differ in shape and structure. In addition, they are demanding because of their often-sticky texture. Many varieties are coated with sugar, which has a tendency to fall off during the packaging process. This situation adds to packaging challenges and can lead to package integrity issues if it is not handled properly. An issue like this must be avoided to preserve product integrity and appeal.

To master these demanding requirements, manufacturers need to keep an eye on several factors. Cleanability plays a major role. Sugar often sticks to the machine parts, disrupting the production process. This calls for properly designed equipment that allows for the fines to fall through without contaminating the mechanical parts. Easy cleaning is another important requirement to keep the equipment and the packagers safe. Product protection, as with all foods, is another priority. Many manufacturers request an integrated gas flushing system to increase the shelf life of the products and keep them fresh. Similarly, packaging machines have to deliver bags with tight seams to prevent product oxidation and contamination with foreign particles. 

On top of the product protection issue, it is essential to prevent children from consuming the cannabis edibles. The packages have to be child-resistant to avoid misuse. At the same time, customers often want resealable bags to keep their products fresh longer. Therefore, machines must be able to produce packaging that combines these two important features.

Flexibility needed for small products and small batches

Given the wide variety of cannabis-based sweets, manufacturers also need flexible platforms that can process products the size of a breath mint. The products can be quite small, so machines need to be designed to handle these products properly. Machines that can be easily upgraded, for instance, to gradually increase the automation of production, are a good choice as well.

Syntegon has been supporting manufacturers from the confectionery, chocolate and cookie industries for decades. The company is familiar with different product forms and their special requirements, for instance, the handling of delicate products and air-tight packaging. Syntegon’s band sealing and flow wrapping machines for low outputs can be adapted to the needs of small and medium-sized companies, including easy cleaning and gentle handling. As companies grow, Syntegon can support them with matching equipment and automation solutions, so packagers have the comfort of working with a known source and can be sure to be supported with their future needs. Compared to manual operations, automation allows them to cut production costs while ensuring operator safety and process safety alike. Manual manufacturing poses certain risks of injury, which automated processes can help eliminate.

Besides a large product portfolio and equipment expertise, Syntegon offers customized after-sales service, including spare parts management and maintenance from a single source. Manufacturers can reduce their spare parts inventory and lower their total cost of ownership. This is important for cannabis startups that need to keep their initial investments manageable.

The future of cannabis

According to a November 2021 Gallup poll, just over two-thirds of all Americans are in favor of legalizing cannabis. Additionally, 60 percent of adults surveyed in the U.S. by the Pew Research Center in April 2021 feel that cannabis should be legal for both medical and recreational use. Strong public support and the projected market development point to a favorable business environment for cannabis edibles manufacturers. The market research firm BDSA expects legal cannabis sales in the U.S. to break the $30 billion mark in 2022.

In Europe, the cannabis market is still developing because it focuses on medical use. If legislation changes in European countries, it’s likely demand for recreational cannabis will rise. Manufacturers are about to find out which products will be in demand, and Syntegon will be equipped to meet a wide range of customer needs with their modular machine concept.

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