Tag Archives: systems

VinceSebald
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Automation – Planning is Everything

By Vince Sebald
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VinceSebald

Automation of processes can provide great benefits including improved quality, improved throughput, more consistency, more available production data, notifications of significant events and reduced costs. However, automation can also be expensive, overwhelm your workforce, cause future integration problems and magnify issues that you are currently experiencing. After all, if a machine can do work 100 times faster than a human, it can also produce problems 100 times faster than a human. Whether it is a benefit or a scourge depends largely on the implementation process.

There are thousands of possible technology solutions for just about any production problem. The trick to getting results that will work for your company is to use good engineering practices starting from the beginning. Good engineering practices are documented in various publications including ISPE Baseline Guides, but there are common threads among all such guides. What will the system be used for and what problem is it intended to solve?

The key is implementing a system that is fit for your intended use. As obvious as it sounds, this is often the most overlooked challenge of the process. In the grand scheme of things, it is a MUCH better proposition to spend more time planning and have a smooth operation than implement a system quickly and fight it because it isn’t a good fit for the intended use. The industry is littered with systems that were prematurely implemented and complicate rather than simplify operations. Planning is cheap, but fixing is expensive.

The most important step to getting an automated system that will work for you is also the first:

Defining “what” you need the system to do: User Requirements

Automation Runaway
Once automation is in place, it can be a boon to production, but don’t let your systems get ahead of your planning! It can be difficult to catch up.

With decades of experience in the automation industry, I have seen systems in many industries and applications and it is universally true that the definition of requirements is key to the success of the automation adventure. To clarify, the user requirements are intended to define “what” the system is required to do, rather than “how” it will do it. This means that persons that may not be familiar with the automation technologies can still be (and usually are) among the most important contributors to the user requirements document. Often, the people most familiar with the task that you wish to automate can contribute the most to the User Requirements document.

Some of the components of a User Requirements document typically include:

  • Purpose: What will the system be used for and what problem is it intended to solve?
  • Users: Who will be the users of the system and what is their relevant experience?
  • Integration: Is the system required to integrate into any existing or anticipated systems?
  • Regulatory Requirements: Is the system required to meet any regulatory requirements?
  • Functions: What is the system required to do? This may include operating ranges, operator interface information, records generation and storage, security, etc.
  • Performance: How many units per hour are required to process?  What percent non-conforming product is acceptable?
  • Environment: What environment is the system required to operate in? Indoor, outdoor, flammable, etc.
  • Documentation: What documentation is required with the system to support ongoing maintenance, calibration, etc.?
  • Warranties/Support: Will you perform work in-house, or will the manufacturer support the system?

The level of detail in the User Requirements should be scaled to the intended use. More critical operations may require more detailed and formal User Requirements. At a minimum, the User Requirements could be a punch list of items, but a detailed User Requirements may fill binders. The important thing is that you have one, and that the stakeholders in the operation have been involved in its production and approval.Once completed, the User Requirements can be a very good document to have for prospective providers of solutions to focus their attention on what is important to you, the customer.

Equally important to the process is the idea of not over-constraining the potential solutions by including “how” the system will meet the requirements within the User Requirements. If it is required to use specific technologies for integration with other existing systems, it is appropriate to include that information in the User Requirements. However, if use of a particular technology (e.g. “wireless”) is not required, the inclusion may unnecessarily eliminate viable design options for systems that may address the requirements.

Once completed, the User Requirements can be a very good document to have for prospective providers of solutions to focus their attention on what is important to you, the customer. This helps to ensure that they focus their efforts in the areas that match your needs and they don’t waste resources (which translate to your costs) in areas that don’t have tangible benefits to you, the customer. It also gives you a great tool to “value engineer”, meaning that you can consider cutting design options that do not support the User Requirements, which can reduce project costs and timelines, keeping things lean and on track.

Further steps in the project are built around the User Requirements including system specifications provided by vendors, testing documentation and the overall turnover package. An appropriately scaled User Requirements document is a low cost, easy way to ensure that your automated system will serve you well for years to come. Alternatively, the lack of a User Requirements document is an all-too-common indicator that there may be challenges ahead including scope creep, missed deadlines and unacceptable long term performance.


Feel free to reach Vince at vjs@sebaldconsulting.com with any questions you might have.

Is There a Looming Supply Bottleneck in California?

By Aaron G. Biros
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California’s regulated adult use cannabis market has been up and running for around four months now and rumors of a potential supply bottleneck on the horizon are beginning to circulate. There are a number of factors that could have an impact on the cannabis supply in the market, most of which stem from changes in the distribution channels now that the state is implementing new regulations.

Those include a slow rollout in licensing cannabis businesses, new testing requirements, the supply carryover period prior to January 1stas well as new labeling and packaging regulations. In this piece, we are going to examine some of those rumors, see if there might be some truth to them and provide some guidance for what businesses can do to prepare for this.

A Slow Start to Licensing

This one is perhaps the most obvious factor to impact the supply chain in California. Much of the delays in licensing cannabis businesses came from the issue of local control, where businesses needed to get approval from their municipality before getting a state license. In the first month of the new market, it took Los Angeles weeks longer than other counties to begin licensing dispensaries. Whereas San Diego retailers saw a massive influx of customers right away, forcing them to buy up product to meet the high demand. Smaller producers also had trouble getting licenses as quickly as some of the larger ones.

Basically it all boils down to a slow start for the new market, according to Diane Czarkowski, co-founder of Canna Advisors. “The state is requiring businesses to get their local licenses before they can get their state license and that will create a delay in operators being able to bring products to market,” says Czarkowski. She says this is pretty typical of new markets, or when a market experiences dramatic changes quickly. “It could be a brand-new market, like in Hawaii, where the operators were ready with product, but there were no labs to test the products, which caused delays.” In addition to the licensing roll out being slow to start, the temporary licenses initially awarded to businesses are set to expire soon, by the end of April.

Stricter Rules to Come

The same logic goes for the testing regulations. New testing and labeling requirements, according to the Bureau of Cannabis Control regulating the market, will be phased in throughout 2018.

CA cannabis testing chart
California’s plan for phasing in testing requirements.

The state has already phased in cannabinoids, moisture content, residual solvent, pesticide, microbial impurities and homogeneity testing to some extent. On July 1st, the state will add additional residual solvent and pesticide testing as well as foreign material testing. At the end of 2018, they plan on requiring terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals and water activity testing. All of those tests cost money and all of those tests could impact suppliers’ ability to bring product to market. “Oftentimes regulations require different types of testing to be done to products without recognizing that adequately completing those tests requires different methods, equipment, and standards,” says Czarkowski. “Most labs do not have all of the necessary components, and they are very costly. Producers could wait weeks to get test results back before they know if they can sell their products.”

Back when we spoke with Josh Drayton, deputy director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, about the upcoming changes to the California market, he voiced his concerns with the coming testing rules. “A lot of testing labs are concerned they are unable to test at the state’s threshold for some of these contaminants and pesticides; the detection limits seem very low,” says Drayton. “The testing portion will take years to work out, I am sure we will remove and add different pesticides and contaminants to the list.” California’s testing industry is, however, capable of adapting to changing rules, as they’ve done in the past on more than one occasion. It should be noted that many labs in the state are on the cutting edge of testing cannabis, working with The Bureau to implement the new rules.

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Roy Bingham, CEO of BDS Analytics

Cannabis products made prior to December 31st, 2017, did not need to comply with the stricter testing rules that are coming in the next few months. This carryover period allowed dispensaries to have products on the shelves when the new market launched in the beginning of 2018. Retailers knew this rule meant they needed to stockpile product in the event of a supply bottleneck, and it appears much of that product is now sold and running out, according to Roy Bingham, founder and chief executive officer of BDS Analytics. “The true impact of licenses is starting to be felt since the carryover from December buying prior to the licensed market has been sold,” says Bingham. “Some of the major brands have consciously not applied for licenses. Some of that has to do with the flexibility the government has given them to wait.”

A fourth reason for a potential bottleneck could also come from packaging and labeling rules. “There will have to be many modifications to products to ensure they follow the new potency regulations, and many formulations will have to be modified in order to meet new regulations,” says Czarkowski. Distributor licenses, according to The Bureau, have a number of compliance documentation requirements, such as arranging for all product testing, quality assurance and packaging and label accuracy. Everything has to be packaged before it gets to a dispensary, which is a new rule California businesses need to comply with.

Pricing is the Indicator

There are a handful of reasons why prices could increase; some of them are more defined than others, the biggest factor being the tax burden passed on to consumers, where reports showed up to a 40% increase from last year. A price increase in the future could also come from The Bureau implementing testing regulations throughout 2018, as mentioned previously.

If prices were to surge enormously and very quickly, that might be an indicator that a shortage is fast approaching. A dramatic increase in price over this year could squeeze margins for smaller producers, forcing retailers to pass that burden on to consumers as well.“So yes, the rumors are true.”

According to Roy Bingham, there has been a significant increase in pricing in all categories at the retail level. “In January and February, we are seeing about 10% increases per month in average retail prices,” says Bingham. “If we look at concentrates in California during 2017, they averaged about $34 by the end of the year, whereas it was about $31 at the start of 2017. So in January, prices have increased up to $38, which is a bit above trend, but in fact we were seeing a trend upwards before January 1st as well.” Comparing that with edibles pricing, Bingham says we see a clear jump at the start of 2018. “It was basically flat in 2017, averaging $14 roughly almost straight-line across, dipped in December, then in January it jumped to $17 and then to $18 in February, a big increase and significantly more than concentrates,” says Bingham. He also says flower was hovering around $9 per gram in December 2017, but surged above $10 in February 2018.

According to Cannabis Benchmarks, the California wholesale averages surged in the summer of 2017 up to $1,631 by September, then reached their lowest point in December, with their spot index at $1,368. The Cannabis Benchmarks report underlines some important reasons for the changes in pricing, but they also attribute it to the new licensing system.

“Increasing operating expenses for businesses preparing to enter California’s licensed system in 2018 were key to propping up supply side rates in the first six months of 2017. New compliance requirements were being instituted to varying degrees by local governments, while market participants warily eyed draft regulations from state officials for guidance as to how to prepare their sites and facilities to meet under-construction regulatory mandates.”

Their report highlights some very important aspects of the supply chain. “Again, it is likely that the increased costs faced by operators up and down the supply chain exert some upward pressure on wholesale rates, preventing them from steep year-over-year declines that were observed in some of the other major Western markets,” reads the Cannabis Benchmarks report.

So How Can Businesses Prepare?

Well to start, producers should make sure their operations and product are clean and safe. Making sure your product will pass a pesticide test should be top of mind. Dispensaries should also be wise in selecting their suppliers, performing supplier quality audits or some form of verification that they meet your standards is key in a consistent supply chain.

Dr. Jon Vaught, chief executive officer of Front Range Biosciences, believes tissue culture could be a viable solution for some California producers. Using tissue culture, as a form of propagation instead of mothers and clones can be cleaner, cheaper and more efficient, thus allowing growers to keep up with demand and prevent a shortage.

Dr. Jon Vaught headshot
Dr. Jon Vaught, CEO of Front Range Biosciences

Dr. Vaught says growers could look to tissue culture as a means to “mitigate risk to their supply chain and mitigate the risk of potential loss and improve their ability to efficiently grow their plant.” Maintaining a disease-free, sterile environment is a huge advantage in the cannabis market. “The real use of tissue culture is to provide disease free, clean, certified material, that has gone through a QA program,” says Dr. Vaught. “In greenhouses, the ability to control your environment is also critical because your margin of error is high. Variations in sunlight, weather, humidity all of these things have an impact in your plants. Technology can help monitor this.”

We’ve covered the basics of tissue culture previously on CIJ, with Dr. Hope Jones chief science officer of C4 Laboratories. She echoes many of Dr. Vaught’s points, firmly believing that, having existed for decades, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up.It is a complex supply chain that requires systems thinking.

It is important to note they don’t think growers should try this at home. Work with professionals, get the necessary funding, the training and facilities required if this is a project that interest you. “There’s a pretty big barrier to entry there,” Dr. Vaught urges. “The ability to manage thousands or millions of plants in a greenhouse increases risk, whereas in the lab, you’ve got a safe, secure, sterile environment, reducing risk of disease, making things easier to manage. The producers most successful at large scale are controlling those variables to the T.”

Ultimately, one segment of the market can’t prevent a bottleneck. It is a complex supply chain that requires systems thinking. Regulators need to work with producers, manufacturers, retailers, distributors, patients, consumers and laboratories to keep an eye on the overall supply chain flow.

Diane Czarkowski says the California market should prepare for this now if they haven’t already. “We have seen supply issues in every market going through a change. Other potential bottlenecks will occur because former distribution channels will be required to change,” says Czarkowski. “So yes, the rumors are true.”

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When the Company’s Revenue Drops, Who’s to Blame?

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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The ultimate goal of any business is to produce and generate revenue. Now, when the company’s revenues drop, who’s fault is it? This question, though silent, is in the minds of everyone in an organization, especially when things start to become difficult.

Working as a consultant in productivity with different industries around the world, I have come to realize that question is not openly discussed, but everyone wants to know the answer. To answer it, we will explore the most common areas of opportunity related to this problem.

When we talk about productivity, we are talking about final tangible results, because of the production process and the effort made by each one; when speaking of income, we are talking about the difference between the purchase price and the cost of entering the market. Seeing these definitions, we might conclude that the increase in income is directly related to the increase in productivity.

On the other hand, we must not lose perspective that the increase in productivity is also directly related to the decrease of losses.

First, we have to put into perspective the goals and objectives that a business or organization may have. Many companies go on believing that everyone is clear about the goals and organizational objectives and what is expected in each one of those roles that compose the organization. The reality is that, if we do not know where we are going, the chances of reaching the goal decrease.

When organization’s objectives are properly communicated, and documented, in such a way that the evaluation of the performance is directly linked to the expected results, the chances of success increase substantially.

On many occasions, I have heard phrases such as: “we work hard, we spend many hours, all sacrifice ourselves… we should be more successful”. The question then is: what are we encouraging, efforts or results?

It is hard for organizations to translate or differentiate between organizational goals and individual objectives (expected results) for each of those roles in the company. We all agree that we want to be the first in sales, the best in service and produce the highest quality, but how is that done?

To be the first in sales, what do I have to do as a seller? Get three customers in a three-month period? As secretary, process the orders in the first three days of receiving them? As a carrier, suggest three ideas be more useful in daily deliveries? How does that translate into individual performance?

We focus too much on telling people what they must do, but we forget to be clear on what we expect them to achieve. Hence, the effort versus result dissonance. The success of an organization is the collective behavior that arises from the conduct of individuals. If we align people, we align the organization.

Other elements that we must ponder, and that are directly related to productivity, are: how much of what we do holds value? How much of what we do does not have value? Moreover, how much of what we do, though it has great value, shall be performed by the requirements of law or regulation?

An analysis of productivity is critical, particularly in a time when we want to do more with less. Lately, an area of great success for many organizations is to streamline processes to make them more simple, efficient and with less risk of error. Human errors generated many losses. Defects, the re-process, the handling of complaints and lawsuits are costing companies money equivalent to the salary of 7,200 employees every day (according to statistics in the United States).

Human errors can be avoided. The idea that to err is human has led us to ignore this problem. We think that we can do nothing and lose an infinite number of opportunities for improvement that can help us to increase our income, reducing losses.

Only 16% of organizations measure the cost of human error. The remaining 84% do not measure it and are paying a high price without knowing it. In Puerto Rico, there are no statistics that could shed light on how many local companies lose because of human error, but it is very likely that the numbers are alarming. Human error can be reduced by 60% in less than a year when an intervention is done on systems. Approximately 95% of human errors are due to the design of the company’s systems, and they can be the simplest errors even in the most complex processes.

Today, we have more information, and we know that errors are symptoms of deeper problems in the processes created by the organizations. People play a crucial role regarding how robust methods are, but, we must not lose perspective that human beings operate according to the policies, procedures, and instructions which the same organization designs. Then, if people work according to the designs of the organization, is it not easier to modify designs than eliminating people?

So, who’s fault? Organizations are responsible for providing clear guidance to individuals in the right direction, and individuals have the responsibility of translating their efforts into results. Both have to work with the same objective in mind, and both employers and employees should communicate openly about these objectives. Only by working in partnership will achieve success. Forget who is to blame and focus on the processes and goals that help us be successful.

ASTM International Launches Cannabis Committee

By Aaron G. Biros
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According to a press release published March 1st, ASTM International formed a committee focusing on “creating technical standards and guidance materials for cannabis and its products and processes.” ASTM, founded in 1898, as the American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials, predates other standards organizations such as IEC (1906), ANSI (1918) and ISO (1947). ASTM International is a non-profit organization devoted to the development of international standards. For more than a century, ASTM has served as a leading venue for consumers, industry and regulators to work collaboratively under a balanced and consensus–based process to craft voluntary consensus standards.

Logo_of_ASTM_International,_Oct_2015ASTM International meets the World Trade Organization (WTO) principles for developing international standards, and maintains the attributes outlined in the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA) for a voluntary consensus standards development organization. ASTM International is known throughout a variety of industries for creating voluntary consensus standards for products, systems, services and materials. ASTM standards are used globally in research and development, product testing, quality systems, commercial transactions, and more.

Lezli Engelking
Lezli Engelking, founder of FOCUS

On January 18th, 2017, the American Public Health Association hosted thirteen industry stakeholders representing state laboratories, standards developers, research institution, academia, cultivation centers, auditors and software compliance providers, according to Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), who is involved and familiar with the process. The planning meeting discussions included a summary of where the request was initiated, why a standards activity was necessary and the results of ASTM’s exploratory efforts. At the conclusion of the planning meeting, it was decided by vote, that ASTM should move forward with the activity.

On February 28th, 2017, roughly 60 stakeholders and cannabis industry representatives met at ASTM International’s headquarters in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The volunteer committee on cannabis, designated D37 by ASTM, is a result of inquiries flooding the company regarding cannabis since 2015, states the press release.

The committee will focus on six technical areas, forming subcommittees:

  • Indoor and outdoor horticulture and agriculture,
  • Quality management systems,
  • Laboratory,
  • Processing and handling,
  • Security and transportation, and
  • Personnel training, assessment, and credentialing.

Dr. Ralph Paroli, immediate past chairman of the board and director of R&D in measurement science and standards at the National Research Council of Canada, was voted to serve as the committee’s first chairman. “With its decades of experience in industries such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, packaging, agriculture, pesticides, and more, ASTM International is the perfect place for standards development for the cannabis industry,” says Paroli.

Pending ASTM International board of directors’ approval (anticipated late April 2017), a shift of standards development efforts has been made from FOCUS to the ASTM International technical committee D37 on cannabis and its products and processes.FOCUSlogo

“FOCUS could not be more pleased by ASTM’s decision to further the development of internationally harmonized cannabis standards,” says Engelking. “This is desperately needed, and an enormous step in the right direction of legitimizing the cannabis industry. We are thrilled FOCUS standards will be included, and honored to be a part of this exciting process.” During this transition period, interested stakeholders can get directly involved through the FOCUS website and then follow directions provided by FOCUS.

According to Engelking, third-party, cannabis-specific certifications for cultivation, retail, extraction, infused products and laboratories are provided by FOCUS for cannabis businesses committed to providing safe, consistent and quality products. FOCUS certification helps businesses decrease liability and risks, maximize efficiency, reduce costs and differentiate their brands.

“FOCUS encourage all stakeholders to participate in this important process,” says Engelking. “ASTM has an incredible standards development system in place that allows for many different levels of participation.” During 2017, ASTM is offering free temporary memberships. After 2017, stakeholders will need to join as a participating member.

Cannabis, Soil Science and Sustainability Part II: The ‘Roots’ of Sustainable Cultivation

By Drew Plebani
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The modern chemical agricultural approach is based on the assumption that chemical science has discovered all facets of plant nutritional requirements. It is clear that the traditional NPK approach to plant/soil systems has its limitations, both from an ecological perspective and in terms of its ability to create nutrient-dense food.

Soil and plant systems have existed together for millions of years and have evolved the capacity to coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial. Plants have been fed and evolved with these biological and environmental stimuli over millennia.

Looking to the geologic record for evidence, we can see that it shows that invertebrates, fungi and early vascular plants appeared on land roughly 400 million years ago, the first seed bearing plants about 360 million years ago and the first flowering plants 130 million years ago. What does this mean? The soil food web has been in existence for millions of years and significant evidence exists that plants and soil biology have co-evolved together for millennia.

geologictimescale
The Geologic Time Scale

Between mineral rich soils and the soil food web, this natural system has been able to create and provide significant plant available nutrients, certainly enough to facilitate the successful life cycle of many species. Clearly from an evolutionary context this system has been able to facilitate maximum genetic expression and the ongoing evolution of biologic species.

In the not-too-distant past, agricultural fertilization practices were based on the existence of a diversity of plant and animal byproducts, animal manures, green manures, etc. These were reintroduced to the system and combined with the appropriate biologic populations, resulting in the decomposition of these organic material inputs and their conversion into plant-available nutrients.

An overview of traditional farming practices provides substantial evidence that farming has been occurring for at least 10,000 years. Why, with such a long history of symbiotic interactions between biologic species, are we now witnessing the mass deterioration of arable land, and agricultural commodities containing lower nutritional value?

Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus bacteria colony, seen breaking through rock.
Together, indigenous mycelium and plant roots seen turning rock into soil

An interesting common question among the conventional farming community, when the topic of organics or sustainability comes up, is “how are you going to feed the world?” Well that goal certainly will not be well served by the development of shelf stable, but low nutrient-dense foods. A greater volume of low nutrient-value foods certainly does not seem like a winning approach. Supporting agricultural systems that encourage the development of sustainable systems via locally produced, nutrient-dense food is a good start.

And the same holds true for cannabis. In fact, the parallels between the production of high quality nutrient dense foods and high quality cannabis products are quite significant.

Nutrient density in crops results from balanced, mineral rich soils, and a diversity of organic materials and biologic life, these elements provide the framework to facilitate the creation of a highly functional, biologic nutrient cycling system. A highly functional soil system results in more nutrient-dense crops, which contain measurably larger quantities of different phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and terpenes as compared to a system operating at a lower level of biologic efficiency.

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Nutrient-dense cannabis flowers

Benefits that have been observed from nutrient-dense crops are: more pest and disease resistance in the vegetative and fruiting stages, greater yield, more complex and intense flavors and a longer shelf life.

Ultimately advancement in any cultivation system means finding and defining limiting factors in the given system. The objective should be ensuring the maximum biologic vitality of the components of said system and its outputs. Practically speaking, in order to enable the full genetic potential of biologic species, this means identifying and working toward the removal of limiting factors. Minimizing or entirely alleviating the factors that limit maximum plant growth will undoubtedly net positive gains and must be an integral component to any sustainable cultivation strategy.

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Cannabis growing in a polyculture

The Earth has provided us with a highly successful, multi-million-year-old biologic system, capable of providing abundant plant available nutrients on demand, a dynamic which must be integral to appropriate and intelligent systems design.

In the pursuit of sustainability, perhaps it is time to return to our roots and begin to pursue dynamics that are mutually beneficial to all forms of biologic life.

In the next article, we will take a step back from viewing sustainability through the lens of soil and plant specific cultivation methodologies, and focus on the broader context of sustainability in cultivation systems. We will look at sustainability from the context of operational efficiency, and provide a case study from a 400-light commercial indoor cannabis operation. The case study will provide evidence that, in order to achieve higher levels of sustainability, both cultivation strategies and operational efficiency must be factored into the equation. As we will see, true sustainability is created through the efficient design, incorporation, use and management of system elements, all of which can, when appropriately designed, work together to create improved efficiency for the system.