In the ultimate small world story, Ashish Joseph, CEO of SC Botanicals (a South Carolina-based hemp processor) and our CEO, Mark Kuhn happened to be roommates in college and Ashish had been an avid Oat Foundry fan since the beginning. A late afternoon chat happened to time up perfectly with the SC team’s desire to turn their incredible, proprietary system into a fully fledged, shippable product.
Who is SC Botanicals?
Some background on SC Botanicals — they are a hemp processing company that offers services in cultivation, CO2 extraction, and solvent-free THC remediation. SC had developed a unique THC remediation process designed to purify hemp oil for nutraceuticals by removing the THC and also purifying the CBD in the process. How they do that is proprietary — it’s a natural remediation technique to extract the psychoactive ingredients, allowing customers to stay compliant with the 2018 Farm Bill and 2019 DEA Interim Final Ruling. The solvent-free extraction process aids SC Botanicals in producing a high-quality product that meets the THC limit in CBD products.
Ashish (Ash) and Mark were DM’ing back and forth about product design and what goes into Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) cabinets and industrial automation and that led to a working meeting with both teams – all of us sitting around our conference room and sketching out the future. Ash wanted Oat Foundry’s engineering design, system design, and automation design brains to help SC Botanicals go from where they were, to full scale ship-a-machine-across-the-country-and-have-it-just-work territory.
SC Botanicals had an effective and completely innovative process but needed help in both scaling and automating – some engineering eggheads that could bring their process to market as a turnkey system-in-a-box. In order to scale, our team knew that the overall design and user experience would have to be dramatically streamlined.
Discovery & Planning
After a NDA and a handshake, the SC Botanicals team gave our engineers a full understanding of their process from input to output. The input is raw hemp oil that contains various THC levels – the psychoactive ingredient in hemp and marijuana. The system extracts the THC content to the legal level of .03% and purifies their CBD oil for use in consumable and topical products.
We ask all of our clients: “If this product was powered by magic, how would it work?” This question helps skip over the low hanging requests and pushes the client to think even further ahead, to an idealistic future state of their product. In this case, Ashish and his team really wanted to make their system automated…completely automated. Instead of having a technician wait by a timer to set certain temperatures and other adjustments, that tech can load the material, press start, and leave the machine running until the cycle is fully complete. Automation in this case not only speeds up the entire process but also makes the system much more user-friendly.
We Hit the Drawing Board
During the first phase of our product development process, our team worked with the SC to figure out the top priority items for the first prototype. These items served as the building blocks of the entirely redesigned process.
The highest priority item on the list is streamlining and automating the user experience, which will allow the operator to pour the raw material into the unit, press start, and walk away until the remediation process is over. This is a major change to SC Botanicals’ current process and will not only save time but will also act as a way to keep the remediation process active until the final product is fully realized.
This is industrial scale so we needed to think big – a much larger reactor size. The reactor is where all the magic happens – mixing, agitation, and heating. As one of the core components of the system, SC had wanted to scale up their existing tech to a more industrial scale so their clients could process as little as 30L and as much as 120L per batch. Based on the timeframe to deliver this working unit, Oat Foundry’s engineers suggested designing something custom but fabricating using a commercially available, off-the-shelf product. The last priority request was to autonomously log data throughout the remediation process – input values, sensor readouts, and output yield values as a way to optimize the distillation algorithm (the machine can produce a finished product and act as an R&D testbed). The ultimate goal was to run the process with various starting materials such as Winterized Crude and CBD Distillate.
Into the Design Phase
With our clients’ current standard operating procedure and our list of build materials, we created a flow map of the various system interactions that gave a visual flywheel of the various components. With a solid foundation, we could begin researching the necessary components to build the new system. This step helped us develop an idea of how the system will work and looks like this:
Deciding on these materials always affects the overall footprint and it has a big impact on the rest of the engineering puzzle. Everything comes into play, such as deciding which material can withstand the most heat, to more complex decisions like how to route the piping and which bearings to choose. Once we determine which components are the perfect fit for the project, we can turn our attention to SolidWorks and start to piece together the prototype design. SC Botanicals plans to ship these products all over the world, so the overall product footprint needs to be easily palletized. This step requires puzzling each of the components together within the frame size and thinking about realistic designs, all while working to improve the overall user flow.
The Fun Part: Building the Prototype
This step is when our renders come to life – where the rubber meets the road. We can finally take our 3D renders, components, and raw materials to the back shop and start building. During design, we have an idea of how our finished product will look, but there are some things that are best tested and improved once the design exists physically in the flesh (so to speak). Turning our renders into tangible products gives us an opportunity to make these changes on the fly and further optimize the final design.
The frame is the foundation of the entire build that provides us with the hard mounts for each component. This is the first time we get a physical representation of the system.
Once the frame is assembled, we begin mounting each major component of the system to their respective spaces within the structure. We start with the control panel – the brain of the remediation system. Each of the components needs to receive commands from and send data to the control panel. We then mount the vacuums and the cold trap before arranging on the centerpiece of this design, the reactor. The reactor tank has been custom fabricated for food-safe processing, outputting data during each batch, and with mechanical pressure relief valves because: safety.
With each of the major components fixed in position, we move on to connection assembly with piping and wiring. The piping connects each of the major components to transfer processing material from each stage of the cycle; all while wiring back to the electrical panel to autonomously manage, control, and log system data. Once we have secure hardware and functioning software connections, we finish the design off with a sheath around the reactor to insulate the heating system.
Now it’s Time to Test
The testing phase is for safety, user flow, and functionality of the fabricated system – heating, pressure readouts, data logging, the whole nine yards. As a closed heating system, high amounts of pressure can build up within the reactor so we have to ensure that our pressure readouts and safety alerts are reporting precise data…rather than exploding. Another critical safety test we perform is operating the machine incorrectly – as if we were a poorly trained intern at SC Botanicals – to ensure all safety alerts properly trip. Once we check off the safety boxes, we plug the system in, load up the material, hit start, and let the automation run its course.
Overall, this project smoothly progressed through each stage of our build. From the initial rundown of SC Botanicals’ standard operating procedure to our final welds and tests, SC now has a productized THC remediation system. Through automating, palletizing, and increasing the user experience from their old system, they can now bring their one-of-a-kind system to the hemp processing market for commercial sale.