Kitchen Confidential: Robotics Startup Dishes Out Automation to Clean Up Food Service Operations

by Lauren Finkle

Clean dishes make the world go ‘round — for food service operations, at least.

Dishwashers are a key component to a commercial kitchen’s smooth operation, but they have one of the highest labor shortage and turnover rates in any industry. With the average dishwasher staying only 42 days, the commercial food industry continuously faces the expensive challenge of hiring and training.

Dishcraft Robotics, a startup based in Silicon Valley, aims to wash away this and other problems the commercial food service industry faces with the implementation of its dish-washing automation technology.

Washing dishes isn’t just difficult, it can be dangerous as well. A slip ‘n slide is ideal on a hot summer day, but not in the kitchen — the primary cause of injuries in the commercial food industry is caused by the wet floor surrounding sinks. Beyond slips and falls, dish washing is an exhausting job due to the repetition, muscle strain and frequent burns from hot water.

In response, many operations have transitioned to using disposable or compostable dishes and bowls. But that is turning out to be an even bigger headache to operations and the environment as regulations increasingly crack down on the growing volume of waste being generated each day.

According to a 2017 study by Rethink Disposable, the vast majority of compostable foodware ends up in landfill.

Dishcraft is solving these labor, safety and environmental issues with a dish delivery service that uses proprietary robotic and AI technology to provide food service operations with clean, reusable dishes every day at an affordable price. Called Dishcraft Daily, the delivery service increases efficiency and productivity of operations while reducing waste.

Dishcraft founders, CEO Linda Pouliot and CTO Paul Birkmeyer, both robotics industry veterans, spent time washing dishes in commercial dish rooms to identify challenges of the job and how robotics could resolve them. It’s that hands-on experience, combined with their vision for automation and innovative spirit, that led to the creation of Dishcraft.

Taking its inspiration from the linen service model, Dishcraft exchanges dirty dishes from the client’s location for commercially cleaned dishes from one of its dish-washing hubs each day.

The company uses its own line of dishware that includes a magnet that enables its robotic dish machine to easily pick up the dishes to scrub, wash and rack them. Dishcraft’s robot then use cameras to inspect the dishes and analyze that data through deep neural networks to clean them efficiently. Birkmeyer says that, after the dishes are washed, the robotics system uses vision-based networks to perform a quality inspection step prior to allowing the dishes to leave the system.

Each system generates a lot of data and requires real-time inference powered by internal GPUs. The startup is currently experimenting with GeForce RTX 2080 Ti cards in its robot.

The system’s deep learning training uses local NVIDIA GPUs and occasionally AWS with NVIDIA V100 Tensor Core GPUs.

Constructing a robot that can handle commercial dish washing — akin to the mania of the family kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner but with more dishes — is no easy feat. The commercial kitchen is a fast-paced, unpredictable environment, said Birkmeyer, and building a robot that can anticipate complicated scenarios is a challenge.

“Without deep neural networks, trained and deployed on NVIDIA hardware, we wouldn’t be able to provide the consistent and reliable operations that our customers demand,” he says.

Since its founding in 2015, Dishcraft’s team of just under 50 staff members has raised over $25 million in venture funding. It’s providing its Dishcraft Daily service to mostly companies ranging from 300 to 2,500 employees.

Dishcraft’s clients are primarily dining service operations in the San Francisco Bay Area that provide food on site or through catering and delivery. The company is also planning on servicing universities and hospitals in the future.