When computer-drawn Blueprints for electrical contractors And other tradesmen first appeared, few people really understood AutoCAD or how to use it. In today's fast-paced construction industry, if you are still unsure of what CAD can do, you may find yourself losing out on some valuable contracts.

Today, the contractor must provide a set of drawings for the client, another set of working plans for the job site foremen to follow, and yet a third for estimating purposes. AutoCAD software works by creating a multitude of blocks and layers that can be easily designed to represent any item found on a drawing-from outlets to panels. For some construction jobs, it may be easy for the electrical contractor to discern each layer by labeling different types of conduit. There are numerous estimating software programs available to help a contractor decide how much material is required along with the lengths and specific wiring.

Over the years, contractors have been able to find better and faster ways of doing things, taking advantage of new technologies. While it may take some time to learn the new system, through its use, electrical contractors will be able to save time and money as they become more knowledgeable about CAD programs.

After years of struggling with traditional estimating tools and some primitive software programs, CAD-based programs finally arrived, but are they a growing trend or a dying market?

“The topic right now is really hot, but the focus on which aspect electrical contractors use the CAD program depends upon what part of the country you're in,” said Ed Bundy of McCormick Systems. “We have a lot of customers who do the design-build. I think now there has finally come a time when owners of properties want to see as-built drawings, and the simplest solution is to have the electrical contractor provide it in CAD. It may be easier for the electrician to provide the drawings up front, but equally, it requires more up-front work for them as well. If an owner is looking to find out if they are on target for materials, they can easily refer to the set of CAD prints and view it as an opportunity to find where each item should go as the project unfolds, and they are able to come up with the pricing for a specific project. Materially speaking, more and more customers are using CAD estimating tools and that's where we come in, providing our software to assist them with their implementation.”

McCormick Systems develops, markets and supports estimating software to the construction industry. The company's CAD Estimating program interfaces directly with your AutoCAD software and enables you to take-off directly from your existing CAD drawings.

At a time when nearly all electrical contractors have computers and nearly 80 percent of them use some sort of business software, these contractors are beginning to realize the extra benefits of a CAD-based program. They are seeking more control and information, better schedules, and change-order flexibility beyond the scope of estimating and more in the realm of project management.

To compete, smaller companies almost require some form of preconstruction software to handle estimating, accounting or scheduling in bid preparation. In the electrical field where details are essential, using a CAD program and receiving the proper training on it lessens room for error.

“Training on CAD is a big issue when the electrical contractor is not significantly involved with CAD, but they need to make an improvement. There are two main reasons contractors are getting more and more involved with CAD-they need to identify if they are losing out on a significant revenue source by not keeping up with the competition or they are receiving significant client pressure so they might have to pass on certain bids because they require CAD deliverables,” said Keith Hallman, manager of Accubid's CAD Integration Products Division.

“Some contractors have subbed out the CAD portion because they do not have someone specifically trained, but then they run into the problems of it being at a higher rate and having less scheduling continuity because then they are relying on the consultant's schedule. The electrical consultant then needs to communicate what needs to be done with CAD and has to be very specific,” Hallman said.

As more engineers and architects want to be able to reference their images and incorporate any changing information into their CAD drawings, having the right form of training to be able to accomplish this task can be a simple feat.

“We have heard of a few firms that are happy enough without using CAD, but they have their own share of pain when delegating the work out of house,” Hallman added. “For the past 19 years, we have been the only firm that trains CAD to electrical contractors. There isn't a huge niche, it's one of a family of products we offer the industry that has been popular and successful. We don't use the classes for the masses approach. Our training is one on one.”

Over the years, the evolution of construction documents going from paper to computer has drastically improved the overall accuracy of the takeoff process. Over the past three years, CAD use has more than doubled in the electrical industry.

“Looking back, we're probably past the curve, so I am not sure that we will see a larger demand than we have had the past five years,” Hallman said. “It's been a relatively long timeline that we are currently in. Electrical contractors have been focusing on how to maximize profit, and they are trying to find ways to make sense of putting their money into training and support. It's a relatively even keel that we are on right now. The most important question these electrical contractors should ask themselves is who they want to be the driver. If it's a new hire who they would like to have focus on CAD operations, or it might be someone internal. It comes down to a business decision, and that's the most common issue they must resolve before proceeding. They want to be sure they make a safe investment. For example, some companies need someone who is very experienced in drafting, designing or estimating.

There are different needs for CAD integration training. One contractor may have a different agenda than another electrical contractor across the country who needs to target as-built or use CAD as an estimating tool. It's a very hot topic right now, especially as estimating has become the single largest overhead item that the contractor spends a lot of time on but gets paid nothing for,” Hallman concluded. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or kspeed@aol.com.