Just about every contractor in the U.S. uses some type of software for estimating and bidding purposes. The choices range from spreadsheet programs, such as Microsoft Excel, to sophisticated systems that help you to take off quantities from plans and seamlessly move the data to estimating programs, building information modeling (BIM) design software, and then on to job cost and business accounting software.
Today, the age of cell phone communication featuring Internet connections, email, and more has dawned. These as well as laptops and small tablet products such as Apple’s iPad,allow you to install applications (apps) that perform a wide range of services. Bidding, estimating, and jobsite management software companies are developing apps that enable you to enter or retrieve data from the field into their software using your cell phone.
Many software companies use Structured English Query Language (SQL) as the platform database software for their systems because it offers wide versatility and greater opportunities for future development.
Tekla, Kennesaw, Ga., is a leading BIM software company specializing in construction BIM applications with particular focus on cast-in-place concrete. Andy Dickey, manager of its construction business unit for North America, says Tekla’s business philosophy is to partner with companies that offer complimentary computing solutions. For instance, one of its partners is Vela Systems, Burlington, Mass.—a company that specializes in connecting mobile technologies on a jobsite to the office. Tekla uses this communication to compute percent complete in its BIM, allowing you to see where your project is in real time. “Partnering is crucial. BIM requires trade specific knowledge based on shared input,” says Dickey. “As we move into the future, partnerships with other companies will greatly facilitate the movement of information into and out of BIM.”
More and more companies are bundling software applications together into one application. In the past, you bought a software package to do take-offs and provide quantities. Then you entered this data into an estimating program to add prices to each quantity. When you secured a project, you started a job cost folder using another software application. Finally, business accounting software enabled you to calculate payroll, keep track of receivables and payables, and provide statements and balance sheets. Today you can purchase one software application that handles all these functions, moving data seamlessly between one application to the next without the risk of human error.
Several software companies showcases their most recent product developments in Most Innovative Product (MIP) contest held at the World of Concrete (WOC). The following four estimating and bidding software bundles will give you some idea about where the industry is headed.
Attendees at this year’s WOC voted the ConcreteCalc Pro App for iPhones, iPod touch, and iPads their first choice in the business tools and software category. The company’s concrete calculator has been the industry standard for many years, making it very easy for field personnel to calculate square-ups, area, volume, rebar, drops, stairs using either metric or the U.S. measuring system, basic math using fractions, and conversions.
Based on its concrete calculator, the new ConcreteCalc Pro is an app that makes the calculator available on a phone or computing device. But it also includes online help, making it easier to edit calculations and compute cost per unit calculations. For more information, see www.calculated.com.
About Time Technologies
The MIP Experts’ Choice was two-time winner About Time Technologies mobile time, attendance, and field data collection software system. Mike Merrill, the company’s COO, explains labor is a company’s largest variable expense. The process of filling out time sheets and daily logs often is inaccurate and delayed, resulting in the loss of timely information. Sometimes this affects a company’s estimating abilities. Merrill says About Time decided to develop software that would work on all major software platforms and be accessible to computers and phone applications. The system features fingerprint recognition and GPS compatibility so that you can validate who is logging in and where they are located.
Payroll information can be logged by using laptops, as well as Blackberry, Android, iPhone, iPad, and Windows devices. Workers can log their own time or it can be handled by supervisors. They can cost account their time by barcode or by using a list of labor codes to list what was completed. Equipment usage and the time spent also can be added, and it’s possible to include job photos, voice, and text notes. The process of time entry goes quickly because it’s not a text entry system, taking an average of 10 seconds per person.
Merrill says About Time’s primary client is contractors and they make their software easy to buy into by integrating it with more than 100 other accounting and payroll systems. He adds that contractors sometimes change accounting companies but can still use their software with next products. For more information, go to www.abouttimetech.com.
In the past doing take-offs from plans and estimating have been separate functions. Contractors used take-off hardware to calculate quantities and then put those numbers into estimating programs or spreadsheets to calculate costs. Jeff Gerardi, ProEst’s president, says they decided to bring estimating and take-off together in one product in order to save time and preserve accuracy. He adds that their new program, ProEst 2011, is very easy to navigate, features a Microsoft look and feel, and links with many different accounting programs. When you start, you can download digital plans, such as CAD drawings, into the software to start take-offs on your computer. The take-off quantities automatically appear in the estimating software where prices are added. When a job is contracted, Girardi says that pushing one button transports your bid into your accounting program.
ProEst uses a SQL database, making it easier to link with other software programs. They plan to interface with Revit—a BIM software program owned by Autodesk—by 2012. For more information, see www.proest.com.
James Sexton, Maxwell Systems’ estimating and civil product manager, says Maxwell is a 36-year-old company. Its first product was accounting software, but in 2007 the company decided to develop a platform that handles accounting, estimating, and project management. Maxwell also sells estimating software to handle specific construction industry needs, such as electrical, mechanical, and HVAC. Its ProContractorMX and Earthwork software helps concrete contractors import plans and do take-off work for all the concrete elements on a plan. You can display 3D views as well. This is very helpful because it shows if take-off areas overlap or if there are areas that have not been taken off.
Like other software manufacturers, Maxwell Systems uses SQL as its database platform now. Sexton says they can import any BIM files and import as either ASCII or Excel files. For more information, go to www.maxwellsystems.com.
Trends in the industry
Many or most in the concrete construction industry aren’t good at predicting the future and know even less about software and where it’s headed. On the other hand, contractors need to buy equipment and technologies that will prepare them for what’s ahead. Following are some points to consider as you make future technology and software decisions.
- Connecting to the field. A goal for more and more software and technology developers is to connect the office to the field. Some companies are much further along with products in this regard. But if you look ahead five or 10 years, nearly all software developed will serve this need. Data will be sent from the field, some of it automatically transmitted by GPS and robotic total station equipment, for input into a wide range of software. The office will be able to know what’s happening in the field in real time. For instance, construction companies will constantly know the percent completion of a project and have information about production efficiency. Office personnel also will be able to send changes to the field to seamlessly provide new directions for construction.
- App programs. These simple programs come in a number of offerings and serve every need imaginable. They can perform specific functions on their own, as well as enable you to receive or input data from and to sophisticated software programs, such as the ones previously described. The business software product manufacturers are producing apps compatible with its software giving you the freedom to work without a computer. Your cell phone enabled with an Internet connection, weighing only a few ounces, now becomes a window into your office. This trend will continue to grow and develop, and you should plan for it with every technology purchase.
- Building common platforms. As you can see from the examples, companies are bringing more software packages together to make it easy to move data from one application to another without human intervention, which often leads to errors. Information you start to accumulate while you take-off quantities on plans is moved seamlessly through other office software packages, eventually providing information to produce accounting reports.
- BIM. Some construction companies understand and use BIM. However, most concrete contractors probably don’t understand how fast BIM is taking hold in the construction industry. BIM opens the way for discussions between all parties of a project, including subcontractors. Everyone helps in the planning and organization of a project, each adding their trade knowledge and thoughts about constructability issues and schedule. One of the payoffs is clash detection—a process that isolates conflict areas so that decisions can be worked out before construction begins.
- BIM links 3D views to databases that include all the information about materials and requirements for every part of a design. Also, workers in the field understand 3D drawings much better than 2D ones, so their work is more productive.
- The manufacturers of bidding and estimating software systems understand the need to be compatible with BIM and are working to make it easy to link to the parts that have relevance for them. When you invest in major software products for your office, it’s wise to have this with vendors. In the meantime, start learning how to use BIM.
- SQL. This tried-and-true database platform has been in the marketplace for a long time and is currently the best platform for bidding and estimating programs. It performs well and easily links to other software products. You should investigate which platform your software choices use.