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White Castle's Robotic Path to Packaging Automation

Integrators used software to identify the optimal positioning of robots on the line based on their footprint, reach, and payload. The software also validates the requisite system performance in relation to the existing components of the packaging line.

The latest automation installation at the plant is a two-ABB IRB 1200 robot station that case packs the retail cartons into 12-ct shipper cases.
The latest automation installation at the plant is a two-ABB IRB 1200 robot station that case packs the retail cartons into 12-ct shipper cases.

Generally regarded as the world’s first fast-food hamburger chain, White Castle, founded in 1921, has over 350 locations in 15 states, mostly in the Midwest and metro-New York City. On the surface, that leaves a good portion of the U.S. without access to the indulgent palate pleasure of iconic square sliders, loaded with grilled onions and perhaps a slice of cheese.

That was the case until 1987, when White Castle opened a retail division, which supplies merchants large and small across the U.S. with frozen, packaged sliders made at three U.S. factories. The factories mimic the way the sliders are made in restaurants but leave the final microwave preparation to the consumer.

The retail sales model has been quite a success. At the end of 2021 White Castle sold its six-billionth retail slider, with over 20% of that total having come in the previous three years. Demand has been so high that White Castle’s Louisville, Ky. factory—one of the first White Castle frozen food plants opened in 1997—now operates three shifts, six days a week. It also serves approximately half of the U.S. retail volume, processing tens of thousands of pounds of meat in making 800,000 sliders per day. White Castle’s Louisville, Ky. factory operates three shifts, six days a week. It serves about half of the U.S. retail volume, processing tens of thousands of pounds of meat in making 800,000 sliders per day.White Castle’s Louisville, Ky. factory operates three shifts, six days a week. It serves about half of the U.S. retail volume, processing tens of thousands of pounds of meat in making 800,000 sliders per day.

Pre-cooked hamburger meat comes into the facility in log form and is sliced into individual patties. The patties are manually placed on bun bottoms, and then topped with grilled onions, (plus cheese during the shifts cheeseburgers are made), and the upper bun. The burgers are then flow wrapped two-to-a-package on equipment from Campbell Wrapper Corporation, and transferred into a blast freezer operating at 35°F below zero.

The Frigoscandia flash freezer has self-stacking belts with exits at the top. After an hour in the freezer the slider two-packs are gravity fed through a small chute onto a conveyor that leads to the three separate packaging lines; two parallel lines for 12-ct cartons sold at general retail locations, and one separate line for 16-ct cartons sold at wholesale clubs. Cartoning is done on Bradman Lake right-angle carton closers. 

Recently upgraded articulated-arm robots

It’s notable that White Castle was an early adopter of robotics; the company is perfectly comfortable with robotic integration. Plant Manager Tony McGraw, now a 35-plus year veteran at White Castle, had nudged his company into ABB delta-picking technology as early as 1998 (see sidebar below for more about packaging robots’ early days). But a side effect of being an early adopter is that newer equipment is bound to arrive, and it’s wise to turn to the experts to know what’s coming down the pike. CIM used RobotStudio, ABB’s offline programming software, to experiment with highly realistic simulations of the palletizing cell while designing the EOAT and determining the optimal robot position and motion.CIM used RobotStudio, ABB’s offline programming software, to experiment with highly realistic simulations of the palletizing cell while designing the EOAT and determining the optimal robot position and motion.

That’s why as McGraw and his team began to explore replacement options and design configurations for the carton packing and palletizing area, they called in CIM Systems Inc., an authorized ABB robotic systems integrator located in Noblesville, Ind. The initial task was to address the new palletizing system, which presented some design challenges. The first was a tight palletizing area, which required some out-of-the-box thinking to fit two full lines. The result was to position the end of the conveyor from each line perpendicular to the front of the robot, one just beyond the other, with a pallet station along the right side of the robot.

To further expedite production, White Castle also wanted the robot to pick empty 45-lb pallets off a stack and place them in the build station once a previous pallet had been built and moved to the stretch wrap station. This required a more complex EOAT design and intricate robot motion.

Simulation software optimizes system design

CIM used RobotStudio, ABB’s offline programming software, to experiment with highly realistic simulations of the palletizing cell while designing the EOAT and determining the optimal robot position and motion. As a system simulation is developed, RobotStudio can identify any potential bottlenecks as well as calculate accurate space requirements and cycle time metrics that the system concept would deliver if installed on the plant floor. A FlexPendant HMI Is used for operator interface.A FlexPendant HMI Is used for operator interface.

“With the two pallets being built next to each other we had to carefully coordinate the robot motion and pallet pattern, making sure the load would clear the first pallet, no matter its height, to safely reach the second pallet,” says Dave Fox, CIM President. “We also had to factor in the programming nuances required to adeptly pick and place the fresh pallets, and the clearances needed for the EOAT, which was bigger than most because of the need to pick up both cases and pallets. RobotStudio played a major role in designing and proving the performance of the system while accommodating all those variables.”

The palletizing robot used in this system is an ABB, four-axis IRB 660 palletizing robot with a 3.15-m reach and a 180-kg payload. This configuration provides enough length and strength to reach and clear all points in the palletizing cell from a stationary position, both horizontally and vertically. The EOAT CIM designed and fabricated features vacuum cups that pick three 8-lb cases at a time for the palletizing operation, along with four pneumatically operated hooks positioned on each corner to securely handle each empty pallet. This combination enables the robot to execute both functions without requiring a tool change.

Case packing – the newest robots

The latest automation installation at the plant is a two-ABB IRB 1200 robot station that case packs the retail cartons into 12-ct shipper cases, a function that occurs along the packaging line after the upstream delta-style FlexPickers (sidebar below) and before the palletizing robots. Mounted on a common pedestal between the two packaging lines, the two lower-payload robots utilize vacuum EOATs to pick two retail cartons at a time and place them into the cases.The latest automation installation at the plant is a two-ABB IRB 1200 robot station that case packs the retail cartons into 12-ct shipper cases.The latest automation installation at the plant is a two-ABB IRB 1200 robot station that case packs the retail cartons into 12-ct shipper cases.

The new 5-kg case packing ABB robots, one dedicated to each line, replace a single, larger robot that served both lines with dwindling efficiency as production volumes increased. Manual operators, who were previously required to assist the process, have been moved to more rewarding jobs in the facility.

CIM again used RobotStudio to identify the optimal positioning of the robots based on their footprint, reach and payload, and to validate the requisite system performance in relation to the existing components of the packaging line.

Today, with the latest in robotic assistance, the line speed on each of the two 12-count lines is 15,600 burgers/hour per line. The 16-count line runs at 18,500 burgers/hour. 

“The tremendous experience we have had with the ABB FlexPickers over the years caused us to look closely at ABB when it was time the replace our other robots. We were introduced to CIM Systems and we couldn’t be happier. The palletizing robot and the case packing robots have really increased the efficiency of our operation. They are truly plug and play systems that require minimal manual support,” shares McGraw. “One of our core values is something we call ‘Continuous Crave,’ which means we never stop working to get a little bit better each day. This investment is a perfect illustration of doing just that.” PW

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