The role of an estimator has evolved, yet it remains rooted in the principles that defined it. A 41-year estimating veteran helps illustrate the means by which estimating has shifted and how the measure of the estimator’s skills plays a key role.

John Sunderland, senior estimator at Fuellgraf Electric Co., Butler, Pa., shed light on how the advent of various technologies has affected how he performs his duties. His take on how the industry has changed and remained the same provides an understanding to a unique, challenging and integral part of the contracting process.

What are the most innovative changes in technology that have affected your estimating duties?
It all started back with the calculator. That was the first change that made a big difference. Moving to the calculator from the old adding machines was the first big change. In fact, back then, we still used slide rules as even those were faster compared to adding machines.

What was the next big change?
The next big deal was the fax machine. It really changed things once again as, back then, and even now, you spend a tremendous amount of time on pricing on bid day and the days leading up to it. The fax machine allowed us to get pricing on numerous fixtures from numerous vendors much faster.

How did the computer affect estimating?
The computer, as I see it, is a “Johnny come lately” of sorts. I have really only been using a computer for the past 18 years in estimating. It is a time-saver, but it has also been a source of problems. The biggest issue that stems from using computers for estimating is that people assume you have so much information readily available, which leads to being asked for more breakdowns, more details, just more, more and more information. In fact, I would have to say the most relevant effect the computer has brought to estimating has been in terms of printing ability.

So, the computer saves time, but the ability to add on a large-scale printer has been even more beneficial to estimators?
The computer can help you do takeoffs, but being able to print off your own blueprints and drawings as you need them or as you make changes has had a significant effect. You could also say that email has helped as well in terms of how the computer makes estimating a more automated function; however, estimating is still about using your hands, your head and just knowing what you have to do.

That is intriguing when you compare it to the estimating software and technologies being touted as helping estimators save time.
I have heard about voice-recognition software and various other programs; I have to say, as of now, I am most happy being able to use Google for searching and Google Maps for viewing sites. I can do a Google search of an item and get an exact picture of what it is, what it looks like and then incorporate that into my drawings. That is a great way to be more precise and save time. I have also found that zooming in on Google Earth allows me to actually see the site I am estimating, and it really helps when you get into things such as underground work and you can see on the screen that you have a sidewalk to deal with, which may not have been mentioned before.

I know a lot of people use smartphones, tablets and other portable computing devices, but in contracting, those work better for project managers. For estimators, we have one job, and it’s to get pricing out the door.

Though such a chronological account by a seasoned estimator shows that advances in technology make the tasks associated with estimating easier—and the emerging software solutions on the horizon will most likely even further fuel productivity and ease the burden felt by some—the basics of estimating remain the same. Detailed drawings, precise counts, accurate pricing and on-time delivery of plans still make up the basis of estimating.


STONG, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at jennifer.stong@comcast.net.