Though estimating software has become more sophisticated, the process of scrutinizing a blueprint and figuring labor and material costs still needs the human touch. Integrated software programs can do takeoffs from a digital blueprint, develop a materials list and send it straight to the Web for immediate pricing, but Courtney Stearns, industry sales manager for Timberline Software's Specialty Contractors division, had a good laugh at the thought of a fully automated estimate.

“Architects still draw things that can't be done. There's always that subjective element. You're not eliminating the estimator at all,” Stearns said. “Architects and engineers do things the way they want it without regard to how the contractor would run the job.”

Digital developments

ConEst President George Hague also stresses the estimator's importance. ConEst's IntelliBid estimating program is always a work in progress. The latest version has Job Spec, which lets the user build assemblies with multiple options. IntelliBid can be linked to SureCount software, which recognizes electrical symbols in an electronic blueprint file and automatically transfers the data into an estimate.

Timberline has ePlan Takeoff, which is similar to SureCount, and while these programs are important developments in automating estimates, the estimator's role remains critical. Hague thinks a fully automated estimate will never be a reality.

“Engineers will not take the position that the job is circuited correctly,” Hague said. “And they don't draw the circuitry. You'll see devices and symbols, and there will be circuit numbers on them. But one of the things is, they make mistakes. You might find circuit numbers that have been used twice. They don't draw the circuitry as to how you go from one to the other, so the estimator has to do that.”

Symbol-recognition emerges

Still, SureCount and other symbol-recognition software can speed the process significantly. Stearns called it “providing digital integration” rather than CAD integration.

“A lot of the players in the estimating world have an interface with AutoCAD or other CAD programs and that's great,” Stearns said. “But it misses the boat for the lion's share of estimators. Most estimators are comfortable doing a takeoff from a set of prints. Our electronic takeoff allows them to do those same exact activities, except they're doing it on the screen.”

According to Sterns, the digital image type doesn't matter. It could be a CAD file, TIFF or JPEG. “It could be a PDF,” he said. “And architects are not so unhappy about giving to you a PDF-they're generally not willing to give you CAD files.”

Estimators can “mark up” digital prints on screen, making notes on quantities and lengths. Typically, the contractor would have to return blueprints with notations erased-or else pay for the prints. An electronic print on a laptop or hard copy gives field managers access to a notated print and allows them to see the estimator's thoughts.

“It's powerful, because it's not just an estimating tool; it helps manage the job, and the changes and negotiations on the job site,” Stearns said. “It's doing what estimators and project managers have always been doing, except on the screen rather than on paper.”

Vector vs. raster

CAD files can be modified, which is why architects are reluctant to release them. CAD is a vector-based system, one built on mathematics. Simply put, the computer-drawn lines can be manipulated by any computer with CAD software installed, which can be a disadvantage.

“In a vector file, they put symbols on as blocks, and each block has a reference number,” said Hague. “Once the block is on the drawing, you can modify it, but the reference number stays the same. If you count by those assigned numbers, then you're counting everything the same, even the ones you modified.”

A TIFF or JPEG file is composed of pixels, and the images they hold are like those on a photograph. Resizing a JPEG can cause the image to lose clarity, and, of course, the image itself cannot be changed. Rasterized blueprints are far more accessible- reprographics companies can provide them-but estimators should exercise caution when using them with symbol-recognition software: an extra line or unrelated pixel group surrounding the symbol can throw off accuracy.

Estimating software and suppliers

With a link to its procurement package, Timberline's software can integrate estimating to purchasing.

“Suppliers are always playing the game. If the bid's due at 2 p.m., they send the quote at 1:55,” said Stearns. “They don't want you to shop it.”

This procurement tool enables contractors to fax or e-mail suppliers for quotes. When quotes are returned, contractors can quickly and easily select a supplier based on low numbers or the contractor/distributor relationship.

“Once you've selected a supplier, you can generate the purchase order right there. And the nice thing, if I'm a larger contractor who wins two or three jobs at the same time-and I want to buy them out-I can send the material list from all those jobs,” said Stearns.

If integrated with other Timberline software, the procurement function can send out job-cost codes using information submitted only once with the original estimate and it will flow through the system.

The distributor comes in

For many, “integration” is a suspect term in construction software, but new tools such as GraybarNET, an online order-management system, and NetPricer, an Internet pricing service, might change some minds. With GraybarNET, contractors can check pricing, availability, place orders, do follow-up on already-placed orders, print invoices and submit requests for quotes for items they do not see within the system, said Jon Huizenga, Graybar's Customer e-Business manager.

“We do a lot of work with the estimating programs,” he said. “We have the ability to download invoice or PO information ... and use the necessary formatting to upload it in programs.”

Graybar can provide customer-specific pricing for upload into software programs such as Accubid, McCormick, ConEst, Vision InfoSoft and Timberline. Bills of material built within ConEst, Estimation by TradePower, Vision InfoSoft and in Accubid's next release can be sent through the Internet directly to NetPricer. Graybar provides a file based on customer requirements, and NetPricer matches the prices, sends them back and loads them directly into the estimating software. Pricing is updated frequently, and customers do not have to upload pricing files to their software.

Contractors and Graybar benefit through efficiency. Graybar can price everyday materials automatically, allowing them to concentrate on spec items for a particular job where a manufacturer needs to be consulted.

“These are special-build items, and it usually comes into lighting and gear. That allows us to do that instead of pricing the same 80 items over for every job. Those are automatically priced and it saves us time and saves the contractor time,” Huizenga said.

Tailored estimating

One of the new features in ConEst IntelliBid software is Job Spec, which lets users preset specific variables, such as the labor factor, to automate takeoffs. This can account for degrees of difficulty in any given installation, including day-to-day tasks such as pulling wire. (See “Quick, flexible labor costs,” below).

“If you pull one wire-and that's what all databases are set at-it'll give you labor. But if you install four wires, although it takes longer, it doesn't take four times as long. The program automatically factors the labor for the increased number of wires in the installation. said ConEst's Hague. “If you're putting conduit in, it'll say, 'How much conduit? How many connectors? How many wires do you want to put in that conduit?' You say, 'four,' and it takes 35 percent of the labor off automatically.”

ConEst's JobTrac-due out in a few months-can do “historical” job costing. With this historical database, JobTrac can factor in materials and the labor according to the company's ability.

“If I were doing an estimate in a hospital, I can take several hospital jobs I've done in the past that are very similar, and it'll come back in automatically. You just select the jobs, there's nothing for the user to do,” Hague said.

The estimating program and JobTrac work together so the contractor is “not just bidding with labor units that are a national average. It tailors it to your company's ability to produce,” Hague said.

Better production is every contractor's goal, and estimating software provides an array of services to meet that objective. The world moves faster every day, so should your business operation. If you do not have an estimating package-and there is a model for every contractor regardless of size-maybe it's time to take a test drive. EC

FULMER is editor of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR and SECURITY+LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS. He can be reached at 301.215.4516 or jfulmer@necanet.org.