“Twenty years ago, the industry’s estimating tools were pencil, paper and a calculator. Those were the days of constant repetitive tasks such as taking off the same materials time and time again, and entering the material list onto paper,” said Tom Lanum, a senior estimator at Tri-City Electric Co., based in Davenport, Iowa. “The next step was the tedious task of manually pricing the material and labor one line at a time by pencil, followed by the recurring task of manual calculations, extensions and additions, all double-checked by an assistant for accuracy. This was an extremely challenging and labor-intensive method of achieving an estimate.”

Many of you remember those days of “Estimating B.C.” (before computers) when hand-calculated bids usually took a bite out of a job’s profit margin, and speed and accuracy were challenges for the future. Today, large and small contractors consistently point to technology as providing the single biggest advancement in estimating since the ’70s.

Shifting to technology

The lifeline of any project is a sound estimate, and the development of software—and the hardware to support it—has increased an estimator’s efficiency and accuracy with takeoffs. Recent advancements in user-friendly features and more mobile platforms are allowing contractors to build extensive material databases, create networking opportunities and automate plans without AutoCAD.

Fortunately, say some estimators, slower, outdated methods are disappearing. Not everywhere, though. Plenty of shops still use the paper-and-pencil method exclusively. As seen in several other fields, the transition from hard copy to hard drive requires a mindset shift that doesn’t instantly occur just by hitting the “Enter” key.

Research conducted by this magazine for the 2002 Contractor Profile shows that overall, 54 percent of the respondents use computers for estimating, with the number jumping up to 81 percent for companies with 10 or more employees.

Bob Mooty, estimating management consultant and instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute (MEI), believes industry usage of estimating tools may closely resemble the demographics he’s seen in classrooms, whereby approximately one-third of NECA-MEI’s enrollees still assemble bids by hand.

On the flip side, many of today’s estimators have cut their teeth on computerized tools, and probably would have trouble doing their job manually, said Thomas McGrail, executive vice president of Motor City Electric Co., in Detroit. The company purchased its first version of MC2 software 16 years ago with the expectation that it could improve accuracy and reduce the labor required to estimate a project.

“When we changed from paper and pencil to computers, many found it difficult to trust the computer program to accurately calculate the estimated input and give accurate results in hours and dollars. The concern was soon overcome through practice and simple estimate calculations,” McGrail said of the company’s transition.

Seasoned software users say the reluctance to switch to electronic estimating can be attributed primarily to the comfort level with computers and the investment in equipment and training. “I think there’s also a misconception that the learning curve is difficult,” said Lanum.

The degree of the conversion ramp up varies according to each company’s experience with computers. For Motor City Electric, the biggest learning curve was understanding what was included in a line of takeoff and gaining user confidence in the results. The challenge for Tri-City Electric was converting from a DOS to Windows operating system. O’Connell Electric Company in Victor, N.Y., found that carving out time to train its staff has been a hurdle.

What contractors want

Contractors have primarily turned to technology to enhance productivity during the takeoff phase that consists of the time-consuming addition of components and multiplication of labor rates and material pricing. In determining the software program that best fits their needs, companies are evaluating everything from simplicity to multistation access, including: • Ease of use

• Speed and accuracy

• Reliability and flexibility • System requirements

• Technical support

• Job modifications

• Networking

• Demonstrations

• Licensing

An explosion of hardware options has increased a contractor’s job-site flexibility, making it possible to estimate in nearly any environment on desktops, laptops, pocket PCs, tablet PCs and now PDAs. With software, most contractors say the greatest benefits have always been speed and accuracy, but the list is growing as manufacturers advance their software capabilities.

“Another big advantage is the ability to segment the estimate into multiple disciplines or areas. In today’s marketplace, there is a great demand to provide numerous breakdowns to our final estimate. It is not uncommon to be requested to provide as many as 20 breakdowns to a single estimate,” said Motor City Electric’s McGrail.

Similar to estimate breakouts, McGrail points out that estimating software needs to have the functionality to quickly add parameters that will meet an owner’s requirements. “By using the breakout option, an estimator can quickly provide accurate value engineering options,” he added.

The electronic edge

McCormick estimating software has helped Tri-City Electric speed up the take-off process since 1984. As a result of building and interfacing with an extensive material database containing prices and labor rates, software also has aided in the development of permanent and temporary assemblies, said Lanum.

“Our material database has the ability to be electronically updated from a pricing service, and our labor rates remain consistent for each estimator. The mathematical extensions and summations are flawless and the chance for calculator/human error has been dramatically reduced,” he noted. The company also has found estimating software advantageous in exporting data to spreadsheets, simplifying the process of soliciting quotations for job specific items such as light fixtures, switchgear and fire alarm equipment.

Another critical function the software performs is linking workstations from different locations, allowing multiple estimators to work on the same project simultaneously. From a terminal server located at its Davenport headquarters, Tri-City Electric connects 25 desktop estimating workstations located in three offices. With the ability to assemble data in a compressed time frame and electronically forward information and assemblies to project managers, the company recently completed an estimate for a multimillion dollar commercial project.

To meet a two-week deadline, the company assigned a total of four estimators to the project. Three estimators were located in Davenport, Iowa, and one estimator was approximately 170 miles away in Des Moines. One estimator was assigned to site work, with another focusing on panel boards and feeders. A third estimator coordinated lighting, branch wiring and alarm systems, and the company’s in-house data communications team was able to estimate that portion of the project.

“Each estimator’s takeoff was individually entered into one master job through true networked software, eliminating file merging and manual lump sum entries,” said Lanum. “With multiple estimators on the same project, we were able to successfully meet the bid date with a complete, detailed list of material and labor for every section of the specification. When all estimators completed their respective responsibilities, the lead estimator consolidated the entire takeoff and massaged the bid summary at one workstation,” he added.

On the horizon

For electronic estimators, the future promises sophistication as well as more simplicity. New technology is affording more mobility. “This will allow the use of equipment in the hands of service technicians, estimators and project managers located at the job site, with electronic connections to the office,” said Tri-City Electric’s Lanum.

Proficient users also anticipate seamless integration of estimating software with front-office functions that will handle document management and further reduce manual clicking. Joseph Pellerite, vice president of estimating at of O’Connell Electric Company, said the industry still has needs to fill. “We need better interfacing from estimating software to project management software to accounting software,” said Pellerite.

O’Connell, an early adopter of electronic estimating tools two decades ago, is working on what the company believes is the next leading-edge technology with automatic takeoff symbol recognition software. Developed by E/T Software, O’Connell recently installed Electrofind to help speed up takeoffs with its ability to search, identify and count symbols on digitized drawings-all without the use of AutoCAD.

According to O’Connell Information Technology Manager Jon McNally, the purchase of Intel’s Pentium 4 Hyper-Threading processor-based systems will power Electrofind to recognize 6 to 10 symbols per pass. “This is cutting-edge technology that we think will help us increase the amount of bids we’re doing, not eliminate estimators,” said McNally. That’s the kind of technology forward-thinking estimators could only dream about 20 years ago. EC

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