Thriving organic-snack producer keeps up with soaring product volumes and market demand with world-class packaging-line automation and technical support
Making good things better, healthier and tastier comes naturally for hardworking folks at the Riverside Natural Foods production facility just north of Toronto in the fast-growing city of Vaughan, Ont.
Founded in 2013, the privately owned company has achieved phenomenal growth in market share and consumer loyalty since taking the snack-food market by storm with the launch of its signature MadeGood brand of organic nutrient-dense snacks infused with real vegetables and made entirely with organic ingredients.
Nowadays ranking as one of the bestselling brands of all-natural granola bars in Canada, the MadeGood brand’s rapid ascent has been a main driving force for the company’s capital investment in new production facilities and state-of-the-art equipment that have enabled it to grow its product portfolio and customer base at a fast clip.
Today operating five production facilities totalling about 575,000 feet of production space, Riverside has expanded its mainstay MadeGood brand offering with many new flavor varieties and adding more other snack products into the mix—such as cookies, crsipie squares, granola bar, granola minis (bites) and crackers.
As Riverside’s vice-president of operation Justin Fluit, who joined the company in 2015, explains: “We now have quite a wide variety of products like cookies, brownies, crispy squares, granola bars, granola clusters and other innovative products we introduced to leverage the market success of the MadeGood brand over the years,” Fluit told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the busy 100,000-square-foot Vaughan facility running two shifts per day, six days a week.
For Fluit, the sweet success enjoyed by the MadeGood brand products in the marketplace to date is made even more remarkable by the fact that is it a premium-priced product, the multitude of mass-produced granola and other snack bars available on the grocery retail shelves.
“It’s a brand that came out of nowhere to be everywhere,” says Fluit, citing a strong retail base comprising more than 8,000 grocery stores across Canada, including the Costco chain of club stores, as well as growing list of clients in the food-service, institutional and private-label markets.
“We are also building a strong brand presence online, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fluit says, noting that the company now sells a substantial portions of its output online through its website and other mainstream e-commerce channels, complete with specially designed pouches and cartons for shipping its products for home delivery.
“The response has been great so far,” says Fluit, adding the company is currently looking at ways to break into the lucrative U.S. markets to replicate MadeGood brand’s success south of the border.
According to Fluit, the MadeGood line of granola treats was the classic case of a perfect product being lunched at a perfect time to tap into the larger health and wellness trend, along with the public’s growing interest in organic product, to provide a healthy, tasty and allergen-free lunchbox snacking alternatives for Canadian parents concerned about their kids’ nutrition.
“There is a lot that differentiates the MadeGood brand from other products,” Fluit states, “notably the inclusion of vegetable nutrients.
“This is something that we see more and more competing products doing now,” he acknowledges, “but several years ago it was something very unique to our brand.
“Also, the fact that is allergen-free, thereby allowing anyone to eat it, is also something that has really set us apart over the years.”
As Fluit points out, the MadeGood organic snacks are produced in a dedicated allergen-free facility (Vaughan) without common food allergens like milk, eggs, wheat and soya, using organic, certified gluten-free oats sourced from a Canadian-based grower.
“You will see a lot of different certification symbols an all of our packages,” says Fluit, noting no less than eight different authoritative accreditations appearing on the pouches and cartons of MadeGood brand of school-safe, vegan-friendly and Kosher-approved cookies, crackers and other dry snacks.
Above all, the soft-baked MadeGood snacks are simply delicious and fun to eat, with a soft but crunchy and hearty texture that delivers instant gratification and pleasant after-taste bite after bite.
“At the end of the day, if the product tastes great and provides the nutritional features that appeal to parents, while still being enjoyed by kids, you can say that we have found the right balance between healthy nutrition and pure enjoyment of the snacking experience,” he says.
As the production volumes kept of growing at a rapid pace from year to year, the Riverside plant found itself in need of high-throughput, high-speed automatic machinery to keep pace not just with the volumes, but also with the growing variety of different packaging formats required by its diverse customer base.
Having had installed several high-speed vertical form-fill-seal) Robobag 3E machines supplied by the Australian-based machinery manufacturer tna to pack the free-flowing product into the different bag size at speed rates of up to 200 pieces per minute, the plant needed to find the right automatic secondary packaging system for placing those bags into the retail folding cartons at similar throughput speeds, with quick changeovers to accommodate all the varying packaging formats executed over the course of the shift.
With multiple SKUs (stock-keeping units) often requiring for different product quantities and varieties of filled product pouches to be placed into all the different cartons to suit the customers’ varying requirements, superior speed and flexibility were naturally the two main capabilities that Riverside aimed to achieve through significant investment in packaging automation.
“If we wanted to keep building the brands and enter the US market, we needed to be cost-competitive, we needed to be highly automated, we needed to have enough production capacity, and we needed to be able to scale up very quickly to respond to market demand,” Fluit explains.
After conducting a diligent market search and vendor evaluations, Riverside ultimately decided to go with the high-performance TLM (Top Loading Machine) picking and cartoning line manufactured by renowned German machine-builder Schubert Group, which has been operating its Schubert Packaging Automation Inc. subsidiary in Mississauga, Ont., since 2006.
“In addition to the state-of-the-art machinery Schubert showed us, I was really impressed by the level of the company’s commitment to the Canadian market,” says Fluit, describing the 2018 installation of the first of two Schubert TLM picking and cartoning lines now housed inside the Vaughan production facility to handle the soaring production volumes for the MadeGood brand products.
“As a growing company with big plans for big future growth and expansion into new markets domestically and abroad, it was important to partner up with someone who would be there for us in terms of local service and support over the long term,” Fluit explains.
Following a thorough discussion of Riverside’s application requirements, Riverside proceeded to order a TLM picking line comprise of four machines to perform the for the final packaging of flow-wrapped granola minis with packages of different flavors into a variety of carton sizes and in special bag formats.
As per customer specifications, Schubert developed various packaging sizes, which were created in close collaboration with Riverside in terms of packaging design and ideal machine operation.
Programmed to pack the five different flavors in four-, five and 28-bag boxes—each in one chosen flavor—the TLM line employs five identical pick-and-place robots to box 400 bags of MadeGood snack pouches per minute.
According to Schubert, the five different flavors can be intelligently pregrouped—with the help of Schubert’s Transmodul transport robot and an inline image recognition system—so that the granola minis can be automatically packed on the TLM machine.
The products themselves, for their part, are fed by three identical vertical-form-fill-seal tna Robobag 3E machines with a capacity of up to 150 bags per minute.
For packaging in cartons, the products of one flavor are fed along up to three of the system’s continuously running conveyor belts.
At the same time, the different carton blanks are automatically taken out of the magazine, quickly erected by an F2 robot and glued together.
The Transmoduls then swiftly transport the boxes to the next station, where five F4 pick-and-place robots fill them with the products.
The TLM line is equipped with high-accuracy scanners that detect the orientation and position of the flowpacks over a width of 600 millimetres.
This information is transmitted to the F4 pick-and-place robots for the correct pick-up and placement of the flow-packs in the boxes.
The filled boxes are then transferred by a first F2 robot to a vacuum conveyor, and there closed by a second F2 robot in one step and placed on the outlet conveyor.
For the special format packaging of the flow-packs into larger pouches, the scanner also recognizes the flavor based on product colour.
This enables the intelligent pre-grouping of granola minis with different flavours, which are supplied unsorted on the product belt.
The flow-packs are pre-grouped in groups of four—each with two flavors—on the Transmoduls and transferred to the output conveyor by means of an F2 robot for further processing by Riverside.
While the color recognition function for the pre-grouping of different flavours was not originally part of the machine order, Schubert was subsequently able to integrate this capability on-site in time to put the system into operation.
In addition to proving continuous service and system enhancement to optimize the TLM line’s performance, Schubert has also provided Riverside technical staff with extensive in-house training both in Canada and at the company’s global headquarters in Crailsheim, Germany, which had a great positive impact on the Riverside staff’s familiarity, comfort and confidence in Schubert’s modular and versatile TLM line technology.
So when the time came to add another automated packaging line to keep up with growing demand for Riverside products in the Club Store and e-commerce segments, ordering a second Schubert TLM line to handle new products and bigger packaging formats with more varied SKU selection was a natural choice.
Says Fluit: “With the diversity of our product line, we really like the TLM system’s flexibility of picking the primary pillow-bag packs containing crumbly or odd-shaped mini-sized products, and gently loading them into the cartons without any product damage.
“Being a young company with a relatively small engineering team, we relied heavily on Schubert’s team for their technical expertise and support,” Fluit points out.
“This is a company that has invested heavily into the Canadian market, not just in sales but also with full team project management, full-service capabilities and all the spare parts inventory we would ever need in the future,” Fluit says.
“This was something that really a separated Schubert from many other vendors for us.”
As Fluit relates, the commissioning of the second TLM line was a time-sensitive project because it was meant to coincide with a major launch of the new MadeGood cookies, with a large portion of that output reserved for production of large-sized 28-pouch Club Store packs and the 32-pouch e-commerce boxes.
“As I recall we had a four- to six-week window for start-up,” Fluit relates, “and Schubert was outstanding to meeting all our time requirements, with their modular design expertise and service experience greatly contributing to the speed of this installation.”
According to Fluit, the addition of the second TLM line has greatly reduced the manual labor requirements for producing a growing of variety packs—combining several different flavor varieties and styles in one box—popular with the Club Store and e-commerce customers.
“Before the Schubert line arrived we were doing it all manually, using a lot of labor and sill not getting the output we needed to meet our increasingly large orders,” Fluit says.
“So now that we have achieved higher throughput capabilities with the second line, we can focus on growing demand for our product rather than struggling to keep up with it,” he states.
“And with e-commerce increasingly becoming a large part of our business, we can easily accommodate the processing of all sorts of different types of variety packs on our Schubert lines with just a few programming changes, with minimal interruptions.
“As a growing company, we have big plans to continue expanding our markets,” Fluid concludes, “and we are confident that we will be able to achieve all our goals with partners like Schubert by our side.”
For Raphael Burkart, project manager with Schubert Packaging Automation in Mississauga, the company’s close collaboration with Riverside Natural Products is a strong testament to Schubert’s world-class technical expertise and customer service excellence.
“Our relationship with Riverside is amazing,” Burkart states. “We worked in very close contact with them throughout the project, especially in installation and commissioning of the machines, and the second line was operational within two weeks of arriving at the plant in crates.
“Although the machines’ performance has been excellent since installation, we still do on-site inspections and maintenance to make sure their machines a running as well as they can,” he says.
“We have five full-time service technicians and three project managers working from our Mississauga office,” Burkart points out, “so we are always within easy reach for all our clients in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) region to serve them whenever they require our assistance.
“The better we know our customers,” Burkart concludes, “the better we can channel our world-class TLM technology to help them accomplish their objectives.”