By Gregory Daurer | Nov 24, 2021
As the lyrics to a song about cannabis from the 1960s go, "Roll another one, just like the other one."
Loucks has developed a machine that does just that -- to the tune of 750-plus joints per hour, according to specs on his company's website.
RollPros' flagship product, the Blackbird, is about the size of two dorm-room refrigerators combined. Ground cannabis is added to a hopper at the top. The machine then internally weighs out enough flower for two cannabis cigarettes, accurate to the tune of +/- 0.03 grams per individual joint. On a horizontal surface, the cannabis flower is formed into a log shape within a belt, with a crutch (i.e., a filter) positioned on either side of the cannabis. A rolling paper, dispensed from a bobbin, wraps around the cannabis within the belt. The joint is then sealed when a moistened sponge coats the gum on the paper. (No licking required!) Finally, the resulting assemblage is cut in half, resulting in two uniform joints.
Loucks grew up in Ridgefield, Washington. As a youth he fixed cars, then farm machinery. Later he worked for Acute Innovations, designing rib and sternum plates that assist surgeons when they perform implant surgery. Next, Loucks joined Sigma Design, helping Hewlett-Packard with reducing its printer noise, as well as developing a fork-dispensing device for Georgia-Pacific.
Just before starting his own company, Loucks was employed at Oculus VR; there, he did secretive optical-design work, which he trumpets on his LinkedIn page as having "won the awe and inspiration of some of the biggest names in the tech world."
For Loucks' latest endeavor, his technical experience complements his prior personal history with cannabis: While attending Washington State University earning his degree in mechanical engineering, Loucks and a roommate would compare each others' doobie-fashioning skills. He says, "I've got a pretty good background on what it takes to [hand-roll] a good burning joint."
However, after Washington legalized the recreational sales of cannabis in 2012, Loucks purchased his very first pre-roll at a dispensary. It was "supposed to be a glorious moment," but, alas, the joint burned miserably. That experience -- and his next one, too -- were just plain "horrible."
Loucks learned how the industry standard -- cone-shaped joints -- are filled from the top. In order to pack the cannabis into the upright paper cones, a "way too fine grind" is required -- which is not ideal for the joint's burn, or for preserving the cannabis' psychoactive trichomes in peak condition.
Although the filling of those pre-roll cones is often done by hand, there are also some massive, automated machines available; Loucks sees that technology as an offshoot of preexisting bottle-filling lines and not up to the task at hand. "I'm trying to fix a bigger issue here -- and not just trying to solve the joints-per-hour problem," he says. "I'm trying to solve the quality-joints-per-hour problem."
The physics of a properly-burning joint can be boiled down to three things, according to Loucks: "the grind size [of the cannabis], the compaction [of the cannabis], and the evenness of that compaction all the way down the joint." Keep in mind that, unlike cigarette manufacturing, no citrate-burning agents are added during the preparation of joints in order to keep them burning evenly.
The tension of the roll can be adjusted on Loucks' machine, depending on how tight a customer wants the paper to fit around the cannabis: say, a looser roll for very compact, indoor-grown cannabis, or a tighter roll in order to surround less compact, outdoor-grown flower.
From developing his first prototypes with the help of a 3D printer, Loucks now operates RollPros out of a 4,000-square-foot space -- a former post office building -- in Vancouver, Washington. There, Loucks' team assembles each Blackbird machine; out of 800 total parts, around 300 are custom-made within a 20-mile radius of the business.
Presently, there are 14 Blackbird machines in operation in Michigan, Massachusetts, California, California, Oregon, and Washington. Loucks adds, "We just did our first setup in Canada, and a few more are on the way to Canada." Each machine costs $225,000 -- which Loucks says provides cost savings over time for customers (often large-scale growers or packagers), in terms of materials. Cone-style joints cost about 8 to 12 cents per joint compared with around 2 cents for Loucks' joints with the Blackbird.
The patented machine also incorporates back-end telemetry, so RollPros can study the information transmitted to the cloud concerning, for instance, the fill time for each joint, the target fill weight versus the actual fill weight for each joint, and the number of joints rolled per hour. If there are any error states that need to be directly addressed, RollPros has the ability to proactively contact the customer in order to help remedy any problems.
Oh, the machine's moniker: Loucks says it's "named after the Blackbird stealth bomber . . . the fastest aircraft ever made." (But, then again, future machines in RollPros' potential line might be named, instead, after other types of birds, in keeping with that possible alternative theme.)
Loucks calls cannabis use prevalent within the world of high tech, often assisting with creativity: "For some reason, after you smoke a joint, your perspective changes. And sometimes it's just enough to look at that problem a little bit differently."
Furthermore, he sees the cannabis industry -- which he envisions undergoing even further automation -- as "a booming market with lots of innovation happening. I'm just glad to be a part of it."
Challenges: "Growing in a smart way, I think, is always the hardest thing," says Loucks. "Do I triple production as soon as I can? Or do I keep learning from the device and keep improving it?"
Opportunities: "We're creating these joints in a completely different fashion than everybody else," says Loucks. "Our opportunity lies in that we've got an edge -- and we've got the quality to back it [up]."
Loucks cites ways he's improving the machine or offering upgrades. He hopes to increase the achievable weight per joint -- presently adjustable anywhere between 0.4 to 0.7 grams -- to meet the desire of some customers to produce one-gram joints. Another anticipated offering: being able to use an inline printer to add information to the paper on each joint, such as the name of the cannabis strain, or the logo of the company producing the joint, or a QR or barcode.
Needs: "I'm always looking for good people," says Loucks. "And that's what makes a good company -- good people."