Roughly four or five years ago, BIM (building information modeling) took the foodservice industry by storm. This product was supposed to revolutionize the way the foodservice industry designed operations. And for good reason. BIM's benefits are many — chief among them is the ability to provide operators with a three-dimensional preview of their kitchens before they are built, clash detection that helps coordinate utilities and structural elements, and the ability for entire project teams to work together in real time.

Given the game-changing nature of these benefits, BIM should be the default foodservice design platform by now, right?

Not so fast.

Adopting this technology comes with some significant hurdles, including costly software licenses, expensive technical infrastructure requirements and a steep learning curve. And lest we forget, the foodservice industry did not craft its high-touch, low-tech image overnight.

So where does the foodservice industry stand with BIM today? What does the future hold? Let's find out.

Adoption Rate

While the foodservice industry continues to transition to BIM, it's taking longer than expected for it to become the default design tool. "Four years ago, we believed in five years BIM would be the default design program," says Doug Fahrenholz, vice president of the foodservice group for The Wasserstrom Company, a Columbus, Ohio-based dealer. "But four years later it's still not it. I would say 20 percent of our business is in BIM, and the architects are the ones driving that. So, at the rate it's going now, it will take another 5 to 7 years before it takes over 50 percent to 60 percent of our projects."

How well the transition is going can depend on one's perspective. "Some of my designers feel it has developed the way they anticipated," says Mark Green, principal at C&T Design and Equipment Co., an Indianapolis-based dealer. "From a management perspective, though, we thought it would be a tidal wave of projects that could crush you. And it has not quite been at that level. Like a snowball rolling downhill, it continues to gain momentum, but slower than we anticipated."

Despite its slower-than-anticipated start, make no mistake: BIM will eventually become the design platform for the foodservice industry.

"What's forcing the continued growth is that the ticket for entry for many projects is being able to do all of your submittals in BIM," Green adds. "It's spreading not because of the end user. It's spreading because of the architect. In their world they had to commit to all BIM, all the time. And that's just how they do their business now."

While the architects continue to drive the use of BIM, this community doesn't appear to be 100 percent on board when it comes to using this design tool. In fact, James Camacho, principal at the Atlanta design firm Camacho Associates Inc., estimates that only 80 percent of his firm's architectural clients work in BIM.

Whether an architect uses BIM could depend on the size of the firm or the nature of the project. For example, many small- to medium-sized firms still work with traditional computer-aided design programs. "Architects doing design in country clubs, for example, are not yet using BIM. Schools and other large projects are using BIM," Camacho notes.

When deciding whether to work in BIM or with the more traditional computer-aided design tools, most designers seem to prefer the former, according to those participating in a study on BIM implementation co-developed by FE&S and the Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) — The Americas Division. How strongly they feel about whether BIM represents the easiest design tool for a project varies considerably based on the size of the project.

For smaller projects (those with budgets of less than $150,000), 55 percent of designers feel BIM represents the easiest option, while 26 percent prefer CAD. Eighteen percent say working with either program is equally easy. For projects with budgets between $150,000 and $500,000, 69 percent of designers prefer BIM, compared to 18 percent who prefer CAD and 14 percent who say both platforms are equally easy to use. For projects with budgets that range from more than $500,000 to $1.5 million, BIM becomes the clear preference among designers, with 78 percent saying they would rather use that design tool compared to only 14 percent who would opt for CAD. And for really large projects, those with budgets in excess of $1.5 million, BIM remains the design program of choice, according to 73 percent of the participants.

As a result, even the often technology-adverse dealer community — or at least those dealers serious about design — will eventually get on board. Some dealers use outside vendors to create their BIM drawings, while others have been working with BIM for years, Green says. "The dealer community is reacting to demand," he adds.

Dealers won't be able to maintain that reactionary posture forever, though. "We are in the middle of converting everything we do to BIM," Green says. "That will be our drawing language. Period."

One reason for the foodservice industry's slower transition to BIM could have to do with the various peer groups working in this community. Some designers at the end of their careers may be reluctant to learn a new program. Newer designers, namely those graduating from college or other technical schools, enter the workforce having been trained on BIM and see it as the direction the industry is going. Finally, the middle group of foodservice professionals, those who are not new to the business but remain years away from retirement, are willing to change but might require an extra nudge.

"It's that dynamic that is keeping it from spreading too quickly within our industry," Fahrenholz says. "It really depends on the peer groups you have and whether they are willing to change."

Cost represents another barrier — a very high one, too — that most BIM users continue to encounter. "The developers of these programs know what they have, so it's not getting any cheaper from that standpoint," Green says. "For us, though, the biggest costs were training and content. We were already paying for other software licenses."

In the early days of BIM, content was a problem because it took so long to create and there was so little available. Because the industry has traveled another four or five years down the road with BIM, there's more content available, which can make things go a little more smoothly. "Our library is pretty vast. We use a lot of repeat items," says Mike Wrase, senior project manager for Rippe Associates, a Minnesota-based foodservice consulting firm.

The process to develop BIM content, though, remains the same. "It's still as difficult to create content, but there's much more available out there," Green points out. "The quality of the content from the manufacturers is getting better all the time. And I think the FCSI standards have helped keep companies from going down different content creation paths."

FCSI partnered with the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers to develop specific content creation standards for BIM. Those standards remain an effective tool in keeping content creators on the same page. "For the most part, content created with that standard will meet most of our needs," says Wrase.

The inconsistency lies within how much detailed information the manufacturer includes in its product families and how the designers present that data in their drawings. "How we use the information from the manufacturer will differ from other designers," Wrase explains, "so we will need to add some other data to help provide the detailed information that we like to provide our customers. Everyone has different ways to produce their content families. Some manufacturers have a lot of information in their families, and others have less."

For designers looking to become faster and more proficient in their use of BIM, developing their content libraries should be a priority. "You have to develop your own libraries. You can use some of the available libraries, but you have to update them yourself to gain the speed of it," Camacho says.

Foodservice designers clearly favor those equipment manufacturers who create BIM content. In fact, 77 percent of the designers participating in the FE&S/FCSI BIM Survey said they changed an equipment specification due to the lack of BIM content made available by the manufacturer. Designers seem to be slightly more forgiving if a manufacturer's BIM content is not up to par, with 55 percent saying they changed a spec due to low-quality BIM content.

When a designer requests new BIM content from a factory, 88 percent expect to receive the files in 7 days or less, according to the FE&S/FCSI BIM Survey. Unfortunately, manufacturers only meet that timeframe 39 percent of the time. Forty-five percent of the time it takes a manufacturer 1 to 2 weeks to deliver the requested BIM content.

BIM's Benefits

Once a BIM user commits to this design platform, there's no going back. "It's like converting from pencils to CAD: Once you start, you might as well do everything that way," Green says.

Like any other design tool, working with BIM has its pluses and minuses. "It takes longer on the front end to work in BIM, but doing all of the connections and other aspects of the backside of the project is faster for our designers," says Camacho, who also serves as president of FCSI–The Americas. "Once we insert that two-door refrigerator, it stays the same size no matter where we move it in the design. And if you move it 20 different times in the design it stays the same."

What if an architect has not yet made the jump to BIM? No problem. "Most of the time if the architect is working in CAD we are going to do it in BIM and convert it back," Camacho notes.

Naturally, the ability to create three-dimensional views draws the most attention. Let's face it: From an operator's perspective, putting on the virtual-reality glasses to view a plan is way more fun than looking at a bunch of squares and rectangles on a sheet of paper and trying to envision what your kitchen might look like.

This nifty feature also helps improve the accuracy of a design, per the FE&S/FCSI BIM Survey. "Operators do seem to read the three-dimensional plans a lot better," Wrase says.

For example, a beverage station might include a soft drink dispenser, ice, coffee, tea and more items, which can really make for a tight workspace. "Some operators can't visualize what they are trying to place on top of a counter until they see it in 3-D," Wrase adds. "It really helps to show operators a 3-D drawing of a workstation like that because some of them really can't read 2-D drawings."

As of right now, though, the more consistent benefits of BIM seem to be the platform's ability to help create a more cohesive project team, which speaks to the plan's ability to create elevations, floor plans, equipment schedules and MEP plans. "It ties the architect, all of the subcontractors and trades together," Fahrenholz says. "I know for a general contractor they can count how many boards or nails are used on a project. So it does lessen the construction costs."

When one member of the project team makes a change, it updates everyone else's documentation, thus enhancing communication. "When we send our plumbing and electrical plans, they have everything they need in there," Camacho says. "So it makes the coordination of all the players much easier."

Experience: BIM vs. Foodservice

Similar to the age-old chicken-or-egg debate, companies must still decide whether they hire designers with BIM experience or foodservice experience. The industry remains split on this subject: 46 percent favor hiring someone with BIM experience, while 43 percent favor hiring someone with foodservice experience, according to the FE&S/FCSI BIM Survey. And 11 percent of the study participants cited factors other than BIM or foodservice experience as being more important when making a hiring decision.

"One's easier to find these days: You can find people experienced in BIM. It's harder to find someone with foodservice experience," Green says. "And we've had to teach people about foodservice for a lot of years already, unless they have already worked in the industry. So we find an experienced BIM person and teach them what we do."

And the importance of BIM versus foodservice experience will often depend on the individual's role within the company. "If they are in a position where they are doing drawing work, the BIM experience is more important than the foodservice knowledge," Wrase says. "Knowing the ins and outs of the program and being able to draw good content is really important. We've always been able to teach the industry to them. If they are in a managerial position, they need to know a little of both. It always helps, though, to have some foodservice experience. Really helps if you have been in the back of the house before to know what you need to draw."

While it can be challenging to find someone who works in BIM today, that won't likely be the case tomorrow. "Some of the new folks don't know how to work with CAD," Camacho says.

While the adoption rate of BIM may have been slower than most expected, many foodservice designers feel this technology is about to take off. "It's going to move faster now. For groups like ours, this is what we do," Camacho says. "And contractors are now requiring the dealers to do it too."

The adoption of BIM could coincide with shifting demographics among the foodservice design community. "As our workforce transitions, BIM will be the program for the future. Someone has to force that change. You have all of these components — architects, foodservice, interior designers — and nobody has picked the main standard. I think the architects will be the ones that drive the change," Fahrenholz says.