JBK President James Benham wrote the following article for the most recent issue of Estimating Today. Check out the digital copy here. (page 21)
In traveling around our great country and visiting the majority of ASPE chapters I have had the opportunity to speak with many of you regarding the technology used in our industry. With each chapter, I’ve discussed a lot of different technologies, a few of which I
will outline below. These are all tools that I think any estimator would want to use to improve their efficiency, reduce the cost of estimating and achieve a higher degree of accuracy with their bids.
Most estimators I know use Microsoft Excel extensively. It is, statistically speaking, the most popular and widely used tool in the estimating industry today. We can thank early ground-breaking products like Visicalc for ushering in an era of automated calculations. Since the advent of Visicalc, and it’s successors, Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel, spreadsheets haven’t taken the next major leap, until now. The major problem with all spreadsheets is that when they are used as a data storage medium, as many estimators I know use it, they fail miserably due to lack of portability and data sharing capabilities. Many cries of “Who has the latest version of the Excel sheet?” can be heard throughout the halls of corporate America on a daily basis, however
, now those cries have a resounding answer thanks to Google.
The concept is simple in thought but rather complex in implementation. What our friends at Google have brought us is the ability to take the Excel sheets that we’ve been working on so diligently for so many years and upload them to their web based interface (accessed at docs.google.com). The similarities between Google Docs and an FTP site end there. Unlike most traditional file sharing sites, Google Docs actually allows you to edit the spreadsheet in real-time on the web. That in itself is very cool, but it gets even better when you see a little button in the top right corner of the screen that reads “Share”. This button allows you to grant real-time editing access of the spreadsheet you’re working on to others in your office or anywhere around the world.
The way they “do” real-time is particularly interesting. The spreadsheet can be edited by everyone at the same time, and as the other users submit edits, the rest of the editors see the new information the instant the other user presses the “Enter” button. Mistaken overwrites are prevented by locking out the cell on which a user is working. The practical applications for estimators are huge. For bid day calculations typically done in Excel, estimators can now use Google Docs and all users of a bid can work on the same sheet at the same time without any fear of overwriting each other’s data. It’s truly great technology, and more great stuff is sure to come from the team at Google Docs.
There are numerous benefits to electronic takeoff that any estimator can attest to, yet it still surprises me how many people I speak with that still cling to paper takeoffs. During the estimation process, not having to pay for prints (considering a single plan set can cost hundreds of dollars) allows an estimator to bid on more work with the same budget. More than that, the ability to save templates, snap to corners and lines in certain file types, and plug numbers from a takeoff directly into certain estimating software can dramatically improve the speed and accuracy of the entire takeoff process. In the theoretical paperless work environment, an estimator could download a free electronic set of plans from plan room software like SmartBidNet, perform the takeoff electronically, and then submit their bid online - without ever having to print out a set of plans or pay any out-of-pocket expenses for that bid. While BIM promises to produce reports that would theoretically negate the need for a takeoff, this part of our business will be around for some time. If an estimator hasn’t tried it out yet, several estimating software companies, including Planswift and On Center’s OST, offer free limited-feature programs or trial programs of their full-featured software.
BIM is being adopted across the industry and products like Autodesk Revit, Vico and Bentley Systems are fighting for the growing market share of BIM users, but many estimators whom I’ve spoken with haven’t started the learning process or simply don’t have the budget to invest in Micro or Macro BIM solutions. In the interim, I strongly advise every estimator that I know to be learning the concepts of 3D modeling and design by using Google Sketchup.
Sketchup provides a free product that anybody can download (www.google.com/sketchup) that allows you to model entire buildings in 3D and to start doing basic takeoffs using the 3D models. (It can easily calculate linear and square feet of objects used in the model.) Other features in Sketchup include the ability to take the designed models and render them into higher resolution conceptual images, or drop the 3D models onto Google Earth to show an owner what their building could look like on the site they have selected. The capabilities of Sketchup go far beyond this, but the immediate benefits, especially considering it’s free, are abundantly evident.
Satellite and Street Level Imagery
Companies I talk to on a daily basis are having to go farther and farther from their home operations for the bids they are working on. This obviously means that estimators are having to bid on work in areas that are less and less familiar. Since it is no longer as feasible to drive down the road to do a job-walk, a ready alternative awaits online. Google Earth, Google Maps, and Bing Maps offer some excellent options for viewing and analyzing composite imagery of the specific jobsite you’re looking to build on.
Google Earth and Maps have done an excellent job (made even better by launching their own imaging satellite) of combining high-resolution satellite imagery with their revolutionary “Street View” images taken from an army of cars that traversed and photographed almost every street in the USA. Further, they have combined imagery from photo sharing site Panoramio and other data sources to provide as much potential aerial and street level imagery as possible.
Bing maps provides some excellent imagery using their “birds eye” view that shows ultra high resolution imagery of major market areas taken from a side angle instead of top down. All of these tools, along with shared Sketchup models of many major buildings, can greatly assist an estimator with areas that they have never been to and can lead to saving project budgets from costly mistakes that would have been made without proper job-site imagery.
As with all technology, this list changes and evolves constantly - these are only a fraction of the tools available to estimators today. Thank you to all of the estimators who have talked with me about the technology tools they use - I hope to be able to visit with the rest of you soon.