Estimating is the bedrock basis of bidding for, and procuring, new work. Even if a company ‘negotiates’ most or all of its contract work, preparing a solid, coherent estimate is crucial. Without a well put together estimate, planning and production have no anchor. With all of the new technology being utilized in support of our industry, including BIM and other CAD type software development, moving estimating from the drafting table to a laptop computer seems almost anti-climatic. The genesis of today’s estimating software parallels the growth of the computer in construction.
Forty or so years ago, Dodge Reports made a half-hearted attempt at making estimating easier and more efficient by providing a microfilm cabinet with 35MM film to project drawings onto a glass table top. The idea being to get full plan sets to subscribers in a more timely, less cumbersome fashion, and thereby improve the quantity of jobs one could bid without having to go to their locations picking up and exchanging full plan sets.
Some 35 or so years ago, when desktop computing (think 64KB Apple IIE type machines) was the “thing,” there were several attempts at producing viable estimating programs. Having tried one or two, I can tell you that they were expensive, cumbersome and the learning curve was very steep. All utilized proprietary machines that were good for only the estimating program.
Even after mastering the convoluted data entry procedures, integrating the takeoff into a coherent whole was not the easiest thing to do. We spent more time—and boxes of tractor driven computer print paper—trying to put together an estimate that we could look at and understand.
Moving into the present day, however, estimating software has taken advantage of the integrated nature of digital communications and the advanced computing power that most laptop computers possess and become, almost, the time saver that it was always intended to be.
The essence of a good estimate, in my view, is detail. Detailed takeoffs, labor and subcontract expenses are the heart of any good estimate. Identifying and listing any expenses you might incur for a project, in excruciating detail, is the hallmark of a good estimator. Overhead and profit are added at the very end of an estimate and can be accomplished with a calculator app on your cell phone, but the detail and accuracy come first.
Switching from manual estimating to software estimating seems to be a difficult leap to make. The “this is how we always did it” routine is hard to overcome. That, and the fact that many estimators simply do not want to learn a new system with which they have no experience. Call it “cranky estimator syndrome” is you wish. The smell of ammonia and the feel of blue line paper, while sitting at a large drafting table, a straight edge, colored pencils and a handheld electronic scaler is comforting. Using your experience and knowledge to interpret a complicated set of plans is satisfying. More so if you’ve been successful over the long haul.
I do not know what the average success rate of bids to hit is today, but one to five (about 20%) is a good ratio if you are a mid-sized plumbing/pipefitting company. Since some bids for larger projects take up to a week or more to put together, you or your estimator’s time becomes a commodity worth considering.
Imagine if you could produce an accurate estimate in a fraction of the time it normally takes? What if you had confidence that the estimate was accurate and as detailed as you might normally get from doing things the “old way”? Go even further. What if you could modify, adapt, expand or contract that estimate, accurately, with the touch of a button or keystroke? More to the point, what if you could do all of this using a PDF or JPEG format on your laptop screen? That is what the new generations of plumbing estimating software are selling.
In no particular order, McCormick, Trimble Acubid, Planswift, Turbobid and Visionsoft, among many others, offer varying degrees of the estimator’s art encapsulated into a digital format. If you haven’t looked at estimating software before because you thought it was “too techy” “too expensive” or “too hard to master,” look again.
While all estimating software is proprietary, they all claim to produce the same thing; a fast, accurate material and labor takeoff. Many had “modules” that can be added (at additional cost, of course) to expand the program and can give the estimator more flexibility by adding “assemblies” to the takeoff. An assembly might include every part needed for, say, a water closet rough-in. This type of flexibility is incredibly time saving inasmuch as the estimator can set up the program to their own parameters so that each fitting or component is included exactly as the estimator desires. Labor factors are equally scalable, adding to the flexibility of the programs.
Instead of doing an item by item takeoff, pricing each item, applying labor, tabulating, adding overhead and profit, the software has all that data calculated and applied when the takeoff is done. Instead of using colored pencils and a scaler, a click of the mouse on two points gives a linear dimension and even colors the line selected. No color? You missed that pipe section. It is even possible to relocate fixtures on the plans for things like as-builts or to better utilize pipe runs.
In my review of some of these programs, it was easy to see that they have come a long, long way from the first tentative steps into computer estimating. Getting the estimators to embrace the new technology, and learning to use it effectively, may well be the hardest part of integrating it, but if you cut your estimating time by as much as 80% it just might be worth the effort.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].