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WATCH: How to Fill Vape Carts

Jul 05, 2023

Buckeye Relief Packaging Manager Bret Bruening and Assistant Packaging Manager Zach Zupancic show us how to dial in the process.

Welcome back to “Tricks of the Trade”!

The Cannabis Business Times team is resuming this four-part video series with “How to Fill Vape Carts,” a process that takes careful calibration and precision to ensure product consistency and quality.

This is episode two in the series, which spotlights the day-to-day operations of cannabis industry professionals through “how-to” demonstrations at Buckeye Relief, a Level I Ohio cultivator and processor on Cleveland’s east side. Check out last week’s episode on “How to Infuse Chocolate” and stay tuned for “How to Defoliate a Canopy” and “How to Freeze Dry Cannabis Flower” in the coming weeks.

In this Jan. 30 video, Buckeye Relief Packaging Manager Bret Bruening and Assistant Packaging Manager Zach Zupancic walk us through the vape cartridge process on their Thompson Duke Industrial automatic filling machine and point out a few tricks along the way.

Most vape cartridge products the team at Buckeye Relief produces will retail at anywhere from $38 to $56 per 0.842 gram in Ohio. With automation, they can fill 50 cartridges in a matter of minutes.

“It’s one of our most premier products,” Zupancic says. “We try to do the best we can to fill them as properly as possible and get them out to our customers.”

When Zupancic and Bruening first began as interns nearly five years ago at Buckeye Relief, the packaging department had yet to be established. Now, in addition to vape cartridges and specialty pods, their team handles an array of flower, extracts and edible products, ensuring they meet all compliancy standards before going to licensed retailers.

Here, they share 8 tips from their vape cartridge filling process.

Filling vape cartridges by hand would take a “long time,” says Zupancic, putting extra emphasis on the word long. “We can crank through 50 of these carts in a couple of minutes.”

Fully automated industrial filling machines are equipped to fill cartridges, pods, capsules, syringes and jars, and they’re built to control temperature to dispense high- and low-viscosity oils. Full automation includes touch-screen controls to digitally program each run. Conversely, semi-automated filling machines incorporate a foot pedal to control the dispensing process.

Speed and accuracy are the benefits of full automation, Bruening says.

Buckeye Relief’s packaging team aims for 0.842 grams for each cartridge filled in this video. While overfilling the cartridges means losing out on the number of units that go out the door, underfilling the cartridges means a misrepresented product for patients.

It’s better to err on the heavy side, Zupancic says.

“We try to do a little bit above [scale] to make sure these carts are being filled,” he says. “But you don’t want to go too high. If you go too high, you could miss out on dozens if not hundreds of cartridges that you could get to customers. That’s the biggest thing. It’s such a valuable product. We really try to dial in at exactly 0.842.”

Editor's note: All of Buckeye Relief's cartridges are filled within a variance according to state guidelines to meet compliancy standards in Ohio's medical market.

If Buckeye Relief overfills each cart by 1 milligram on a 10,000-cartridge run for the day, just for an example, then it’s only missing out on roughly 12 cartridges for that day. But if the team is overfilling each cart by 10 milligrams—0.852 grams instead of 0.842 grams—then it’d miss out on roughly 120 cartridges for that day, which equates to approximately $5,000 at retail.

“Luckily, this [machine] is highly, highly accurate,” Bruening says. “It’s all about the calibration. Once you calibrate it once, it should be good for the rest of the run if you did it correctly.”

The packaging team at Buckeye Relief heats up a batch of oil before adding it to a larger glass syringe on the filling machine. From there, the oil will eventually travel through a tube and into a smaller filling syringe before being dispensed out of a fine needle into the cartridges.

“We heat it up in our oven at about 165 degrees,” says Zupancic, who is working with a lavender vanilla product in this video. “That really just gets it flowing. It makes it easier to get through all these small parts.”

Once the heated oil is added to the larger glass syringe, it needs to travel through the assembly tube that’s controlled by a valve. Make sure the tube is fastened tightly, Zupancic says.

He then uses a handheld heat gun to warm up the valve and positions the machine’s heat lamps on the tube and valve locations.

“You don’t want to put too much heat, because then that will ruin the product,” Zupancic says about maintaining the integrity of the cannabinoids in the oil.

Once the oil is heated and the machine parts are in place, Zupancic dispenses a couple units of oil into a jar just to ensure it is flowing properly. The priming also helps ensure there aren’t any air bubbles dispensed in the oil, which would put the carts underweight.

“As I prime this more and more, it’ll go into that [dispensing] syringe faster and faster,” he says while double checking the various compartments on the machine.

After priming the machine, there’s no time to waste, Zupancic says.

“When I put this tray on, you need to act fast, because the longer this oil sits in these compartments, the thicker it gets and it’s not going to move,” he says. “That’s why I’m dispensing this oil a bunch of times before I actually start it.”

Zupancic adds a tray of 50 vape cartridges onto the machine’s tray table and makes sure it’s in the correct position by manually driving the smaller dispensing syringe’s needle down a few times to a corner cartridge.

“I’ll make sure it’s in position and going, and then I will hit start,” he says. “And it should work its magic.”

Once Zupancic hits the start button on the touch screen, he’ll warm the dispensing compartments with the heat gun for roughly 10 seconds. If the first few cartridges in the run aren’t filled properly, he’ll have to go back and manually fill them later.

“You don’t want that to happen a lot,” he says. “You kind of want it to be perfect and go every time, because I don’t want to keep going back and having to fill it up.”

The Buckeye Relief team checks its cartridge weights from each corner of a tray by manually taking each of those individual carts out of the tray and putting it on a scale. Whoever is weighing the corner cartridges records those weights via an in-house tracking system.

Once the machine is done filling all 50 cartridges on the tray, Bruening uses an arbor press to manually cap and seal the cartridges with their tips.

The arbor press allows an even distribution of force across the entire tray, but Bruening gets down to eye level with the cartridges to ensure he doesn’t press too hard and crack the filled products.

“And then you just kind of look over it to make sure there’s no leaks, nothing like that, nothing that looks weird or wrong,” he says. “And then we’re going to place this upside down and that’s going to allow us to find any leaks—if there are any leaks from the visual inspection that we missed.”

The team also checks each individual cart by wiping it off and making sure there’s no distillate on the outside, Bruening says.

As far as the filling process goes, the standard procedures remain fairly consistent across different products within the vape category.

At Buckeye Relief, the team works with various distillates, live resin-infused distillates, and 100% live resin for its cartridges and pods.

8 Tips to Fill Vape Carts8 tips 1. Efficiency: Invest in an automatic filling machine that will save time and labor as well as ensure extreme accuracy, precision and repeatability for each run. 2. Calibration: Aim for the exact fill weight with every cart, but err on the high side. 3. Temperature: Heat up the oil to the proper dispensing consistency. 4. Prime the Machine: The priming process is essential to remove any air from the machine and ensure the oil is flowing properly. 5. Act Fast: The longer the oil sits in the machine without being dispensed, the more difficult it will be to work with. 6. Check Your Weights: Double-check select cartridges of each tray and follow a standard procedure. 7. Cap Them Off: Don’t press too hard, and then inspect for leaks. 8. Dial in Different Runs: Minor temperature changes are needed for distillates and live resins.