Growing numbers of electrical contractors are trying out new technology to increase their efficiency—some products with more success than others. But the CAD (computer-aided design) system has become a staple that contractors cannot ignore. CAD software systems promise to increase a contractor’s efficiency and accuracy as well as expedite the estimating, detailing and material acquisition process. And CAD manufacturers offer plenty of options to make that work. Many contractors are in the frustrating position of having purchased AutoCAD and being unable to use it properly. This scenario may be more common than you would think. But there is help in a variety of venues.

After talking with the manufacturers and contractors who use CAD systems, there was one encouraging commonality—the CAD system does increase efficiency and save money (often a lot of it).

CAD systems give contractors the ability to perform estimates of conduits, outlets, switches, etc., without nearly the labor they have used in the past. With CAD software, symbols and other graphic details are used to define the details of a job. Those details can then be linked to a PC with an estimator database where the symbols are counted or lengths are measured and the resulting material and labor is calculated. What would take hours on paper is a matter of some initial keyboard work in a fraction of the time.

CAD is increasingly in use by bid/build, design/bid/build and design/build contractors. Building architects use CAD drawings that the electrical contractor can often work with; at times before and at times after they are awarded the job. The symbology and material link is nearly instantaneous and makes a contractor’s job faster and often much more accurate.

SELLECT Inc. is one company that offers a software system specifically for electrical contractors called cadTakeOff. This software allows the contractor to link his CAD drawings to any participating estimating vendor, as well as spreadsheets or other in-house programs. With cadTakeOff, CAD drawing files received from any client or associate can be processed through the electrical contractor’s estimating software to create cost reports. The company also works exclusively with electrical contractors to sell, support, train and develop CAD systems for the contractor’s needs.

According to Keith Hallman, president of SELLECT, the company attempts to educate contractors before they reach the phase of having bought raw CAD (usually AutoCAD), which can be purchased affordably, but comes with little assistance for its users. When contractors take the raw product out of the box, they find no electrical content and therefore no electrical productivity.

SELLECT is one of the companies that adds electrical friendliness. By customizing the system for electrical contracting, they boast that they can cut user time from two or three hours down to one hour. “When a contractor calls us, we hope we can help start them thinking beyond just CAD-capability to the goal of CAD-profitability,” said Hallman. Those contractors who don’t are often met with a product without any tools and frustration that results. In this case, contractors often decide the system cannot be worked in-house and outsource the work instead. In doing so, they have a higher overhead and less control.

Because CAD is a generic drafting utility, there is nothing electrical about CAD systems. Someone must add industry-specific functionality. With that electrical-based modification, CAD systems can be used for layouts of electrical or power distribution as well as the smaller details of a project. For example, a task as simple as the addition of a duplex receptacle can be more time consuming than necessary on raw CAD. Hallman said that while many users will spend six mouse clicks or more with raw CAD, those using a customized system can be done in three clicks. Over time, the end result is the same as paying an electrician six hours to install a three-hour panelboard. “And when it comes to cost-estimating, a user might be wasting 10 hours or more doing what could be done in one hour in a CAD environment,” Hallman said.

In addition to needing customized tools, contractors often benefit from training to make CAD work optimally. Very few contractors have the patience or technical savvy to train themselves. The majority seek some kind of assistance. Companies like SELLECT offer individual training. There are also vocational/technical schools or correspondence courses available all over the country. It is also possible to find local CAD consultants, although these consultants are not likely to be knowledgeable specifically about the work of electrical contractors. For those who like to forge into training on their own, Autodesk Press publishes three books for the professional AutoCAD user. AutoCAD 2002: Migration Manual, AutoCAD 2002: Complete, and AutoCAD 2002: Professional.

Once the CAD system is working effectively it can help in several functions of a project. To begin with, contractors use CAD in the bidding process.

Bidding with or without drawings

Architects generally have CAD drawings of a project at the time they go out to bid. Contractors who have an estimating system with a CAD interface can use this technology to link up to CAD. While generally the drawings can be used only in the building phase, that might be changing. Many architects do not make their CAD files available to contractors before a bid is accepted. While electrical bidders should not expect access to the architect’s CAD files, sometimes they are able to gain access at the contract award phase. With an architect’s CAD drawing, contractors have the opportunity to prepare a bid that is specific enough to put them ahead. But since architects may be unwilling to share the CAD drawings in the bidding process, often the contractors are still doing their estimating on paper.

That doesn’t bother Steve Shrader, president of Shrader Industrial Systems in Muncie, Ind. He said his CAD system is fast enough that he can have his CAD drawing put together shortly after being awarded a job. Shrader generally gets CAD drawings from architects after the bid is awarded and immediately can complete submittals for switches and other related equipment. Conduits and switches are color-coded by size and then sent through CAD estimator to give an exact inventory of material they will need. The entire process is done quickly and well before the project begins.

The process does require some getting used to. Architects all draw differently and they do so on CAD files as well. While a contractor would use symbols to differentiate between an outlet in a blockwall as opposed to an outlet in a drywall wall, for example, an architect might not. For that reason, Shrader said he likes to do his own drawings to ensure they are specific enough.

Project management

CAD software developer Ed Bundy at McCormick Systems noted that contractors have found unintended uses for the CAD estimating package that has further eased their work load. McCormick customers now use CAD for project management as well. Bundy described the process where contractors found they could take the drawings onto the job site: “He does the AutoCAD drawing to detail how it will be built and uses the drawing in the field.” The drawing then allows them to determine where conduits, switches, etc. are needed by easily referring to the drawing’s specifications on the job site. “The materials they need are there—since everything is laid out in the CAD drawing,” Bundy pointed out.

Ultimately, contractors can take the as-builts that lay out the jobs and give them to the customers. Making the CAD drawing can take more time up front, but will save time throughout the job. Once the as-built is available to the customer, it saves time for everyone involved.

With CAD drawings, contractors can create files that include all the specifications of the project, then provide them to the customer. Once the customer has the drawing on a Portable Document Format (PDF) file, it can be used in maintenance for decades. “It’s more work up front, but expenses are less,” said Bundy.

Steve Shrader is finding his CAD systems works well enough that he can market it to other contractors. At Shrader Industrial they have made a CAD system specific to the needs of electrical contractors using McCormick software. Shrader, who has been working with the software for a year, says the benefits became apparent almost immediately. “It takes a lot of time out and eliminates mistakes,” he said.

“In my experience, it has saved 5 percent of job cost,” Shrader estimated. While every job is different, Shrader finds that when you factor in the time spent identifying materials, counting and dealing with information that was detailed incorrectly, the savings are significant.

Shrader said he can take a good electrician and train him to make estimates without having been an estimator. “With my program, it would be easy for him,” he said. The package includes three days of training, which Shrader says is all he needs to make a contractor competent with the CAD system.

“Once the job is done, you have a great set of as-builts on a PDF file,” he said. Institutions like hospitals or schools would find such maintenance files crucial.

There are other options to enhance the CAD system. For example, the Collaborative Document/Drawing Review System allows contractors to accomplish the viewing and markup of documents and drawings without having or using the application that created them. Markups and additions are non-destructive, the original document is never changed. The markups, annotations and comments instead are saved in a corollary file, documenting a history of suggested changes.

Web4 Inc. is one such review program. It is the first truly active collaborative view and markup solution, and it combines a simple way to hold meetings and share documents live, over the Internet, with the ability to view and annotate documents, drawings and CAD files in more than 150 formats.

The program makes it possible for companies to conduct on-line conferences in which several participants can retrieve, view and annotate documents and drawings anywhere, anytime, on any computer, in a real-time online collaborative environment. There is also a conferencing option that supports both real-time audio and video as well.

Whatever your choice, it is advisable to educate yourself as much as possible before making any purchases. There is likely to be technology that will save any contractor money but individuals need to ensure that they can discern it from technology that would instead waste their time. EC

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