Everyone's dream: A robot that washes dishes

This article originally appeared in The Silicon Valley Business Journal (Everyone's dream: A robot that washes dishes)

Paul Birkmeyer’s love of robotics dates back to childhood, but it was his high school job moonlighting at an Ohio hotel washing dishes that may be just as relevant in his current endeavor.

As CTO of San Carlos-based Dishcraft, Birkmeyer in 2015 co-founded a company whose robotic dishwashing facility acts like a linen company but with dishes, where plateware is washed offsite and delivered clean each day to restaurants, where rolling, automated racks of dirty plates are swapped out. Dishcraft can clean as many as 50,000 plates a day.

Birkmeyer, whose company recently closed on a $20 million funding round, declined to disclose information about its customer base, citing nondisclosure agreements, but did say it’s trying to broaden its scale and hopes to expand to multiple dishwashing facilities through out the Bay Area. Dishcraft is also looking to benefit from the efforts of many Bay Area cities to crack down on single-use plateware.

Paul Birkmeyer

Title: Co-founder and chief technology officer
Age: 34
Hometown: Granville, Ohio
Residence: San Carlos
Education: B.S., electrical and computer engineering, Ohio State University; Ph.D., electrical and electronics engineering, U.C. Berkeley
Career path: Birkmeyer was a research engineer for SRI International before co-founding Dash Robotics in 2012 and then co-founding Dishcraft in 2015

What are your system’s environmental gains?

One is changing people away from compostables (compostable plateware and plasticware) and all the waste they generate. People no longer have to do all the hot-spraying for the pre-cleaning and racking — people are all over the board on how efficient they are. We’ve designed the robot to use less water because the robot physically scrubs (the dishes). Not only do we use less water, but it’s cold water that’s recirculated for the pre-rinse station. So it uses dramatically less energy and water.

Are you targeting quick-service restaurants for potential customers?

That’s a market opening up now because a lot of legislation in the Bay Area makes it so that they have to switch away from single-use foodware. There are other big opportunities on campuses and in corporate offices, where they bring in or make food for staff and may or may not have a dish facility.

Do you see full-service restaurants as potential future customers?

We use so much less electricity and water that it would make sense for restaurants to give up a dish room and seat more people in their restaurant — restaurants are super-sensitive to that. I would love to enable them to reclaim the dish room for the dining area.

What motivated you to help start this company?

My job before this was building big humanoid military robots, but I was looking for something that people would want to buy and not something that would die in a lab. Then I met Linda (Dishcraftco-founder and CEO Linda Pouliot), and we realized that dishwashing is a real problem for restaurants.

How did you figure out how to best build a robotic dishwashing system?

We encouraged people to work a shift in a dish room to really experience the pain. We had people work in Vegas, in restaurants, in corporate cafeterias.

Are you concerned over pushback from people who may say your product may eliminate entry-level jobs to the restaurant business?

No. The average tenure for a dishwasher is about six weeks. Restaurants spend more time trying to staff the role than it’s filled. The people who are helping us run the robots were once dishwashers themselves. Now they’re more like technicians. They say it’s the cushiest dishwashing job they’ve ever had.

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