Trade shows are a great place to learn

The annual rites of summer’s last gasp: the Labor Day barbecue, returning the kids to school and preparing for the NECA convention. The annual show is good opportunity for estimators to see the industry’s new products. It’s also the time to “kick the tires”—to view the advances in the various estimating programs. There are also the valuable workshops covering a variety of subjects. The current schedule can be viewed at http://www.necashow.org/.

Shows like this are also an indicator of the growth of estimating software and systems. My first exposure to estimating was a course I took using the text written by Ray Ashley in 1949. The book is out of publication, though some used copies may be tucked away in contractors’ hideouts. Ashley’s approach to estimating reflected the practice of the times and imposed a very detailed materials list. Each item was individually labored. Obviously that approach to estimating, considering the size of the electrical costs as compared to the overall building values, consumes way too much time.

Gradually the industry began to create assembly units especially for those items that repeated themselves on projects. As assembly units progressed, their detail was more applicable and some folks organized their data in some semblance of order. In my case, I used a National Cash Register card-filing system that worked well for the 200-some assembly units I had created. It was apparent the next phase would be some method that would make these units and speed up the access and information -updating process.

A number of estimating systems based in published books or providing forms for ready access to industry costs showed up. Some are still on the market but may pose a problem as to price recency and labor hours accuracy. In the middle ’70s, computers came to the market in an affordable price range for an individual user. My first unit, $399 on sale at Radio Shack, used a tape recorder for data storage, an abysmally slow system for the small capacity of the systems. About that time, spreadsheet programs came onto the market, and progressive estimators jumped on the bandwagon to organize their data. It was a new toy and something to brag about, though it did little to get jobs for the contractor.

The genie was out of the bottle. A virtual storm of new programs and systems showed up at the NECA shows of the ’70s and ’80s. Some were short-lived. One of my students found out the limits imposed by his old-line, reputable firm when he wanted to factor his labor units and was told it would take a complete revision of the data using programmers at an exorbitant cost. This Hawaiian contractor’s answer to the firm was to tell them he was going to use the unit as a boat anchor. These were hectic days that finally separated the industry-applicable systems from those that could not or would not try to answer the contractors’ requirements. As the systems developed, their accuracy and use grew while equipment costs came down to affordable levels.

The continuing improvement of systems lowered the learning curve. Increased efficiency of the various products spawned the demand for support structures of the various programs. With all of the changes many of the ancillary providers added or redesigned their products to service the use of computerized estimating systems. Pricing services found an expanded market that ultimately reduced much of their hard copy services.

The data-processing technology has kept pace with the needs of the electrical industry. The PDA (personal digital assistant) has taken the estimating system to a degree of portability that few thought possible years ago. The digital camera and ways to transmit real-time information from the field added more options that benefit the industry. Finding a very remote location of the job walk is no longer a daunting task with a GPS (global positioning system), which is sure to become every contractor’s standard tool. Latitude and longitude for a specific location can easily be found on the Internet with www.geocode.com.

Despite all the bells and whistles there is one key factor that cannot be electronically enhanced: the estimator. As a novice, I asked my chief estimator to check my labor figures. He turned his back to me and pulled out his literally little book to check “his” labor units. Over the years, I realized he was using the early editions of the NECA Manual of Labor Units and had developed a system to factor the values.

No amount of whiz and bang can replace the trained estimator, not even the fussy logic aficionados who claim computers will completely take over the task of estimating. Self education by getting the latest information, keeping up on product changes, networking with other estimators and checking out the system improvements are sufficient reasons to show up for the show. You may even find a curmudgeonly estimator walking the aisles. EC

DAVID is a professor of electrical technology at Long Beach (Calif.) City College, a consultant and an expert witness. He can be reached at 562.597.1877 or at edavid@lbcc.cc.ca.us.