It is difficult to imagine operating a contracting firm today without computers, but 50 years ago few could predict the impact this business tool would have on every industry. Concrete Construction first mentioned computers in a November 1962 article: “We often view with sympathy the unusually low price of a successful bidder. Sometimes this sympathy is wasted, as the contractor [may have had] ... a secret weapon ... . For instance the first contractor who used a computer in his job scheduling or in establishing his estimates could have quite an advantage.” It took more than two decades, however, for this to become a common occurrence.
A few pioneering contractors automated their business systems in the early 1970s, usually developing their own software. In 1978, we reported on a new computerized management software package designed to operate on a minicomputer and consisting of integrated modules allowing the user to perform project control, job costing, payroll, CPM scheduling, and financial functions. By the 1980s, computerization was covered regularly in these pages.
In 1983, while some contractors grappled with the differences among microcomputers, minicomputers, and supermicros, others forged ahead. The August 1983 issue described case history applications, such as the use of a computerized scheduling system to control material-handling logistics for an 8-million-square-foot project over 5 years. A special product section presented dozens of hardware and software offerings for construction management, estimating, mix design and batch control, project planning, CAD, testing structures, and other functions.
Two 1987 articles offered advice on choosing hardware and software. According to a May article, “A good benchmark system is an IBM PC-compatible microcomputer with 512K [yes, K] of RAM, a 20-megabyte hard disk, and serial and parallel (printer) ports.” The article explained the option of networking microcomputers, but added: “Most contractors need only a single-user system, but some contractors have two single-user systems, one for accounting and one for estimating.”
The July 1987 issue included questionnaires to help contractors analyze their software needs. Taking a cue from self-tests commonly found in women's magazines, the surveys let readers tally points for each answer and match their scores to a rating scale that identified functions needing computerization.
The March 1990 issue warned readers to computerize with caution to avoid pitfalls. The horror stories may have knocked the undecided back to the wrong side of the fence. Some companies were unable to invoice after a conversion mistake and negotiating with customers to accept estimated bills; some could not process payrolls for weeks; some had their bonding suspended when they could not produce financial statements.
There were still nonbelievers in 1991, and a June article played “good cop-bad cop.” Take the leap, and at the jobsite you'll have a 2-pound personal computer that is networked with your office computers via your cellular phone. Don't computerize, and the competition will leave you in the dust while someone uses a computer “to list your assets at the liquidation auction and calculate drafts on the proceeds for your creditors.”
In the mid 1990s came the World Wide Web. A January 1998 article told readers how to use a search engine to find a unique pattern stamp, get local weather conditions, or locate a ready-mix supplier. Another article in that issue urged contractors to promote their services on a Web site-—”before most of your competitors do.” Four years later, a January 2002 article reported that most contractors were using the Internet for marketing, to get industry news and conduct research, but not to purchase materials and equipment.
Over the decades contractors automated function by function, according to which resources were readily available, affordable, or easy to implement. New advice came in July 2001: Abandon multiple software programs in favor of an integrated system that allows information to be entered only once for use in different applications.
“A mere 10 years ago, the world was just getting used to Windows 95,” said a September 2005 review. “Today computer systems and the software that drives them have gone from being individual tools applied to specific tasks to being an integrated part of how almost everything works. Computers have become a vital tool in nearly every contractor's arsenal.
Arming for the Bidding Wars
The need for fast, accurate estimates was a driving force for contractors to automate. “A relatively small number of very large contractors have the estimating function fully computerized,” stated a December 1973
article touting “a new type of office machine, the programmable calculator.” At a cost of about $3000 (1973 dollars, no less), the programmable calculator was “much less expensive than even the smallest business computer.” What's more, the machine could sit on the desk of the estimator, who could program it “without having to learn any sort of computer language.”
A decade later, only 18 percent of contractors who had computers were using them for estimating. That finding was a mystery to the author of a February 1984 article that noted, “There is hardly an application more ideally suited to use of a computer than construction estimating. An estimator familiar with a good system can produce three to four times as many bids as he can produce manually.” A January 1988 article took up the case, explaining that computers could improve estimating accuracy by easily drawing on data from completed jobs.
Advanced estimating packages described in a March 1989 article featured a work package that enabled contractors to take off a concrete component's numerous items just by entering its dimensions. The more sophisticated, “intelligent” package could make decisions such as the grade and spacing of rebar based on the height of the concrete wall. The article predicted that designs would eventually be created and stored entirely on CAD systems, paper blueprints could become obsolete, and CAD would be linked to estimating software.
Outside the Box
As computers proliferated in the 1980s, specialized uses began to emerge. A May 1986 article described how a project saved $250,000 when a computer program was used to calculate costs of 1700 columns in a 45-story building. Computerized concrete mix design was the subject of an April 1987 article. Pumpers, a small niche of about 1000 companies, could choose between two pumping software packages described in a June 1991 article. More recently, readers learned the benefits of developing digital photo archives (January 1997), bar-coding their tool inventory (May 1997), and using total-station survey instruments for layout work (January 2005).