With the rising costs of construction, electronic technologies that aid project management may become some of the most important tools in your toolbox. Software designed to streamline field operations and material purchases, as well as managing estimates through the entire life cycle of a project may be a company’s life raft in this tough economic undertow.

Even if you are certain you have developed a solid project estimate, the ultimate proof of how the crews are performing against those estimates will be found in the data you keep. ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR talked with project-management software developers and a key electrical distributor about current contractor needs and recent introductions designed to save time and boost productivity.

Instant office in the field

A new trend impacting contractors is the use of mobile devices. More project-management solutions are becoming interactive, and the advantages are obvious. Cell-based devices that permit users to capture and transmit information, either instantaneously or as needed, will cut down time transporting paper-based data and improve accuracy in the process.

According to Brad Mathews, Dexter + Chaney, vice president of marketing, today’s recordkeeping has gone beyond the act of supervisors gathering the numbers and writing them down. There’s greater urgency for accurate data collection and proper categorization. Bad data, Mathews said, will trump efficiency gains any day.

“If you’re writing timecards at the end of the week or even at the end of the day, it’s fiction. You’re reconstructing, and who has a minute-by-minute memory? There’s enormous room for error in trying to manually capture the exact amount of time an employee worked and allocating it to the correct phases,” Mathews said.

Addressing the need for an automated method for digital record keeping in the field, Dexter + Chaney (www.dexterchaney.com) introduced Spectrum Mobile. This is a new module for its Spectrum Construction Software, which has been continually updated since its original introduction in 1984.

Spectrum Mobile allows field supervisors to synch real-time electronic data from the job site with administrative offices, eliminating the practice of filling out paper time cards and re-entering that data into Spectrum’s payroll system. At the job site, the supervisor also can employ an integrated bar code scanner to scan an employee badge or another item selected from a list populated by Dexter + Chaney.

According to Mathews, this software addresses two of the most common payroll errors: over-reporting hours and inaccurate coding.

“Most supervisors have to spend some time gathering and recording the time, and that’s not probably going to change dramatically,” Mathews said. “But with a mobile device, everything downstream gets easier because the data comes in. And it’s accurate, digital, validated, and there’s no rework of the data.”

The software can be preprogrammed with a company’s proprietary codes for entry of the job name, phase, pay type, labor and equipment. The information is input directly into a PDA, laptop, tablet computer or other compatible device.

“Whether a contractor already owns a suitable PDA [that runs on Microsoft Pocket PC operating system], laptop or tablet, or they buy a PDA from us, we provide the link to download the software for easy installation from the Internet,” he said.

Spectrum Mobile consists of a PC server application and client software running on Microsoft Windows Mobile handheld remote devices, laptops or PC workstations. The system can be established using a wireless network (WAN) or with batch communications.

New hybrid: desktop meets the Web

Two substantial new technology partnerships have been formed in the area of estimating, and upgrades to another estimating software package will benefit an electrical contractor’s ability to standardize and automate projects.

ConEst Partners with eSUB

ConEst Software Systems (www.conest.com) and eSUB Inc. (www.esubinc.com) have integrated their products for the purpose of migrating information stored in ConEst’s desktop estimating software directly into a Web-based project-management program provided by eSUB.

According to eSUB President/CEO Wendy Swift, the new hybrid technology benefits electrical contractors by providing the platform to take an estimate from the desktop to the Web.

“A lot of project-management systems exist that were written for general contractors, but there are no other Web-based project-management systems that give the electrical contractor the ability to accomplish two-way communication from the takeoff stage extending through the entire life cycle of the project,” Swift said.

“Project-management for subcontractors is a totally different beast than for a GC. It’s important that electrical contractors use systems designed specifically to address their individual challenges and needs and that are biased to protect their interests,” she added.

eSUB’s TRACKpoint consists of three modules to promote standardization and efficiency in subcontracting firms: project management, corporate management and a timecard solution that integrates with most construction accounting solutions.

McCormick partners with Autodesk

Another key Web/desktop industry partnership was announced recently. McCormick Systems (www.mccormicksys.com) and Autodesk Subcontractor (usa.autodesk.com) have integrated their systems following recent separate introductions of McCormick’s V9.0 software and Autodesk Subcontractor 2009.

According to Todd McCormick, president of McCormick Systems, the business partnership is designed to allow electrical contractors using McCormick to estimate electrical and/or ABS jobs, and then pass the information to Autodesk Subcontractor where it can be tracked and/or managed. Autodesk Subcontractor 2009 is designed to standardize and automate a project through the transfer of data from the estimating to the project-management side.

“If I generate information and I can’t pass it, it’s not any good. You’ve got to pass it, and someone’s got to be able to accept it and use it,” McCormick said.

Specifically, without an automated transfer of key data, contractor personnel must rekeystroke the same information from their job estimate into different project-management documentation software. In addition to duplicative effort, re-entering information exposes it to possible clerical errors.

Additionally, McCormick said, the integration will provide contractors to incorporate as much detail on a job or be as generic as needed.

“If someone’s doing a small strip center, they might not need that much detail, but if they’re doing a hospital or a wastewater treatment plant or a chemical facility where the work is more concentrated, they may need more detail to track the labor, the job and the profit,” McCormick said.

Jeff Burmeister, product manager for Autodesk Subcontractor, said the partnership has been in development for a while.

“We’ve actually been working on putting this deal together for two years. We had to wait until each of our platforms were aligned so that the products would speak efficiently and effectively for the client,” Burmeister said.

Accubid streamlines estimating and project management

ConstructJob, Accubid’s Web-based project-management solution is now integrated with Accubid’s estimating programs, allowing project managers to create, manage, track, and share project documentation, and communicate and collaborate with construction industry partners from a single platform.

“An accurate estimate puts a contractor in a position to make money, but it is in the project-management phase that the potential profit is won or lost,” said Bob Yakimetz, president and chief operating officer of Accubid Systems (www.accubid.com). “Most contractors have already invested in software to produce faster and more accurate estimates, but many are only now beginning to look at software to streamline and standardize the project-management process.”

According to Yakimetz, the bill of materials can be transferred to ConstructJob for the automatic creation of a project log.

“But it’s not enough to have the right tools. You also have to know how to use them,” Yakimetz said.

Accubid offers project-management courses that focus on the fundamentals and mechanics of planning, scheduling, tracking and change order management.

“These hands-on seminars involving actual projects leave students with an understanding of the concepts behind project management and the skills to function effectively on the job site,” Yakimetz said.

The latest version of Accubid’s ConstructJob is focused on easier site navigation with a more intuitive interface; support for unlimited number of addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, and e-mail addresses for contacts, branches and companies; and the capability of assigning contacts to multiple locations.

Material pricing files on demand

Since 2002, in an effort to help electrical contractor customers compete more effectively on bids, Graybar has provided customized electronic material pricing files for use with electronic estimation software. According to Graybar Customer e-Business manager Jon Huizenga, the distributor recently relaunched Graybar.com. A component of the site now allows customers to register to receive pricing files electronically to save time.

Huizenga said the St. Louis-based distributor reports an increase in the number of contractors using its pricing services. He attributes the growth to contractors recognizing the advantage of being more responsive to their customers and gaining a competitive edge in the bidding process through estimating-cycle time savings and bid accuracy.

In the past, contractors typically had two primary methods for pricing a bill of material. They could use trade pricing and a discount structure to get a ballpark figure. However, this pricing was not always accurate, and contractors had to allocate significant time to track and update the multipliers in order to improve their profitability. They also could send the list of material to their distributor branch and wait for the distributor to price and return the list. The distributor pricing was more accurate. But it involved wait time, and sometimes the information had to be keyed into their estimate.

“Electronic pricing files eliminate these drawbacks because Graybar’s service is fast and accurate,” Huizenga said. “Contractors’ bids are more accurate because they can load their pricing for stock materials directly into their estimating software. Or, if they use NetPricer, they can update the bill of material pricing in about five seconds. Both methods eliminate the time-consuming, error-prone method of keying in pricing manually,” he said.

By design, electronic pricing files also should reduce the number of items that need to be priced manually. This allows Graybar to focus on pricing gear and lighting packages.

“It’s difficult to determine exactly how much time per bill of material a contractor saves,” Huizenga said. “But we know that last year, contractors who received pricing files from Graybar increased their business with Graybar 2.5 percent more than the average contractor. Contractors who received pricing information from NetPricer increased their business with Graybar 6.2 percent more than the average contractor. We think this increase in business illustrates how valuable this service is and how it enhances our relationships with our customers.”

Graybar is currently providing pricing files that are compatible with electronic estimation software packages produced by Accubid, Apex, Cert-In, ConEst, Estimation, Jaffe, McCormick, TurboBid and Vision InfoSoft.

“I haven’t found a file format we can’t produce,” Huizenga said. “If a customer needs one that we aren’t producing, we’ll do our best to add it. For example, last year, we started creating pricing files for TurboBid, an estimating software package that some of our residential electrical contractor customers use.”

Contractors can register for the service by contacting their Graybar sales representative. Customers can request convenient intervals for pricing file updates.

“We work with our customers to determine what is best for them and provide their files as needed,” Huizenga said.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.