Software vendors once bemoaned the fact that contractors were comfortable being “behind the times” when it came to technology. But in just a few years, electrical contractors have come to the forefront by using technology that makes their construction work faster and more accurate from bidding to billing. Moreover, vendors are listening to contractors’ needs.

Many software vendors are focusing on bringing full-service packages to the construction industry. ConEst Software Systems recently released a package that takes the contractor through the design and estimating processes, follows the project to completion and calculates ways the contractor could enhance proficiency.

To have the entire service, contractors would need to invest in two packages. The most recent is IntelliBid, which offers design assistance and estimating. With IntelliBid, contractors can calculate lighting requirements and electrical formulas before the design work begins. After the design is completed, the software assists the contractor in estimating labor, materials and cost. For $6,000, it automates estimating.

ConEst also sells separate software for bidding, job and permit tracking. The three items can be purchased together for $5,000.

ConEst2000 is a full-scale estimating software program that includes real-time networking, built-in National Electrical Code (NEC) calculations, automatic labor rate adjustments, digital photo display, change-order functionality and quotation analysis. This enables contractors to start tracking the job faster, including costs such as payroll, equipment usage and fees. ConEst 2000 eliminates the need to manually input individual job-tracking codes.

Risk management may be greatest concern for electrical contractors when it comes to documentation. Jeff Burmeister, sales and product manager for Constructware, confirmed that risk management was the concern most clients voiced to him.

“The approach we take is pretty simple,” Burmeister said. “Having the appropriate tools to be successful today requires using specific software to standardize and automate the day-to-day documentation into a centralized database for generating simple business processes.”

Constructware software is designed to streamline the project from design to accounting and equipment tracking. Burmeister has witnessed the transition to technology that electrical contractors have made in recent years.

“The construction industry is technologically literate,” he said. “They were the spearheaders for estimation software.”

Contractors continue to alert software makers of their needs.

“People out there are kind of scattered,” Burmeister said. “Many are using different software for different functions.”

The Constructware software is intended to eliminate the need for multiple solutions.

“What you want is everyone operating in the same environment. That’s what standardization means,” said Burmeister.

Constructware software offers tracking features but not estimating. Project tracking is intended to replace multiple software programs by offering project management, document filing and a tracking system from the birth of a project to its completion. Many contractors have some or many of those options on different versions of software.

“To me it doesn’t matter whether it is estimating, accounting or project management, electrical contractors are always battling fires everyday. They don’t have a lot of free time,” Burmeister said. “Not doing something is my bigger concern. They need to have themselves covered. If the documentation is not there (and something goes wrong), your chance of recovery is almost nothing.”

Standardization between accounting, estimating and project management is becoming a greater asset. A recent report by the Aberdeen Group, a market-based research company in Boston, found that the stand-alone nature of technologies used by those in construction is affecting companies’ bottom line. According to the survey, streamlining is the better approach.

Pile of papers, drawings, faxes and notes can be cumbersome. Standardized software allows individuals from different departments—project managers, account representatives and employees on the field—to interact seamlessly. Job-cost analysis, for example, can be quick and up-to-date since functions such as invoicing are available electronically almost as soon as the transaction is completed.

Also, contractors can use certain software packages to better work with CAD drawings. CAD Integrator by Sage Timberline Office uses a standardized language to define CAD objects and their associated objects, thus speeding up the estimating time. Thanks to the seamless link, users no longer have to custom interface to transfer information from CAD drawings to an estimate.

With CAD Integrator, users can map items to IFC CAD objects, perform takeoff for one or many objects in the IFC file, and view all items that have not been taken off.

CAD Estimating from McCormick Systems lets the user takeoff directly from CAD drawings. It tracks everything that has taken off and highlights symbols that have not been taken off, allowing the user to check a specific item takeoff at any time. The software also alerts you to any missed items, counts home runs and creates assemblies.

McCormick provides on-site training for software customers and has training facilities in Arizona and Maryland.

Many software vendors focus on providing trends analysis within their products as well, so that contractors can evaluate excessive expenses, where money could be saved, and which jobs were not profitable and why. Good project management software can analyze and forecast a trend so that previously overlooked productivity problems can be recognized and addressed before the entire project is a loss.

No contractor can afford to be slowed down by software. Most vendors are focusing on making the software straightforward and accessible. Any good vendor will offer training when a company purchases its first package and customer support once the software really gets to work.

Vendors are finding better ways to improve their estimating systems all the time. Estimation Inc. has developed the EZ Pricer, which expedites the pricing process with suppliers, and can be added for free. EZ Pricer works with Microsoft InfoPath, a system suppliers must have, to make soliciting supplier quotes a matter of a couple of mouse clicks.

The system allows contractors to list their suppliers and create columns similar to a spreadsheet that can be automatically e-mailed to the supplier. Suppliers receive a list of materials and key in prices, but cannot modify the document otherwise.

Karl Rajotte, executive vice president of Estimation, said the system saves contractors the lengthy process of contacting suppliers individually to obtain prices that they must key into their estimate.

Rajotte said he sees contractors bringing their own competitors to the Estimation booth at trade shows in an effort to get them signed on to an Estimation system.

The logic is simple: when one contractor provides an accurate bid but his competitor makes a mistake and underbids a job, everybody loses. The accurate bid loses the job, the low bid loses money on the job and the end-user is unhappy when the bid proves to be low. For that reason, contractors should have some kind of estimating software in place.

“We’re all good systems,” Rajotte said. “I’m not going to say my competitors aren’t good as well, the important point is to get something.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.