From Takeoff to Project Management: What’s New In Software?

We’ve seen small companies who weren’t competitive and who have invested in software, and suddenly we’re competing against them. And they compete very well.” -Monty Claar, Project Estimator/Manager, Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc.

“I can say right now our software is one of the only reasons we survived the economic downturn.” -Casey Dillon, Project Manager and Estimator, Atlas Excavating Inc.

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Okay, we’ll say it again: The right software, configured to fit your business and well integrated with how you operate can increase efficiency, save money, and make you more competitive. But it requires staying up to date on what’s available and adjusting to your market. Right now, that means a holistic approach to job management and new hardware and apps to make it happen. Here’s some of what’s out there and how it’s being received on the ground.

Out of the Gate
On Center Software Inc., which helped initiate the digital takeoff revolution back in the 1990s has announced On Center University, which offers free basic training webinars covering all three of its products, On-Screen Takeoff, Quick Bid, and Digital Production Control because, says training manager Misty Malone, “most companies only leverage 30% of the capacities of their software.” Customers with current active licenses and a maintenance contract have unlimited access to as many as 10 live webinars a week led by a certified trainer. On Center has also launched 24-hour technical support during the five days of the business week.

Roctek International recently released WinEx Master version 9.4, which directly imports data from vector PDF files, thus eliminating the time-consuming job of tracing contours.

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“Vector PDF files have become more and more ubiquitous, explains Carolyn Goodwin, Roctek marketing manager. “People are reluctant to give out DWG or DXF files because they can be edited. But they are willing to give out a vector PDF.”

In addition to solid line import, Roctek’s new PDF function will handle dotted or dashed lines where the segments are not identified in the original file and provides the ability to sequentially edit the elevations of the imported lines. Users overlay the import file on the main drawing by clicking the new “transparency” button, which makes it possible to verify the alignment of the data before starting the import and easily edit the reference points.

“Using Roctek’s takeoff software has produced 50% time savings in the work I do, and I’ve tried other programs,” says Erica Strauss at J.H. Excavating, Inc. in Allison Park, PA. “With some programs you have drawn everything very exactly, but with this when you bring in the vectors, you don’t have to do that. Even before the update, with Roctek’s program you can trace the elevation lines very easily, just like a crayon on paper instead of having to click the mouse on each section. That’s a huge time saver.”

Photo: Insite SiteWork
Along with importing the site data more quickly and accurately, special algorithms also have the capability for handling problems with the existing grades.

InSite Software Inc. has also added support for vector PDF files to its takeoff software. Along with importing site data more quickly and accurately, special algorithms also handle problem with the existing grades displayed as short disconnected line segments. Plus the software has the ability to selectively activate or deactivate layers, thus eliminating conflicts that can stall the takeoff process. The vector PDF method is also supported by 3-D Live, the program’s full-time, real-time 3D rendition of the site, which builds and shows new data as soon as it is entered.

Caption “Special algorithms make even dashed existing contours selectable on vector PDF files. This makes takeoff of complex sites significantly faster than with digitizers or tracing on the screen”

 “We optimize our software for the fastest and most accurate possible takeoff,” says Steve Warfle, Insite product manager. “Takeoff is a production job. On a job site you’re trying to get as many yards moved as fast you can, and the name of the game in the office these days is to get takeoffs done as fast as possible. And they need to be accurate because everybody’s breaking these jobs down every which way. Insite’s goal is give you superior production so you can have a chance of landing more jobs.”

Trakware’s big new roll-out of EarthWorks 4 joins the parade of takeoff software that reads vector PDFs directly. “Vector PDFs are actually line-drawing instructions,” says Gregg LaPore, at Trakware, “as opposed what we had previously, which were basically big photographs of the site plan. With the new files and our new software, no matter how you zoom in on them, all the drawing objects have crisp edges.”

Carlson’s new 2013 takeoff software provides support for AutoCAD 2013, comes with IntelliCAD 7.2 built in, provides data prep capabilities for layout and can create 3D models for machine control in native Topcon, Trimble, or Leica, as well as Carlson.

According to Midwest Regional Sales Director Ladd Nelson, the new version also includes additional reporting tools including coloring schemes for cut and fill maps and/or reporting subgrade areas. “We’ve added the ability to better approximate the existing ground conditions when they’re conveyed in the form of contours. An algorithm helps minimize the degradation that comes with producing surface models from contour maps and allows for a more accurate existing ground surface model, and thus a more accurate volume calculation when the design model is applied on top of it. Another option is the ability to drill hole surface elevations into a surface model. If you want to do soil borings, you can enter this drill hole data to create your models for both existing and subgrade surfaces. If you’re going to be cutting into rock, for example, having this drill hole data can help.”

Carlson has also introduced the SuperG tablet, which combines the function of a laptop and a hand-held device and thus suitable for both data collection and CAD and stakeout work, and which can also Word and Outlook. “We realized that the screen real estate on handhelds is actually pretty small, plus most of the mobile devices are set up for running mobile apps and don’t have a lot of horsepower for larger data sets, especially given that models for machine control are only going to become more larger and complex.”

HCSS has introduced a suite of new mobile apps for collecting and reviewing data on construction field operations using iPhones, iPads and Android-based phones and tablets. The apps integrate with HCSS’s back-end databases, which allows for seamless integration with more than 40 accounting systems. The apps were designed to be able to work both offline and in wireless mode, which can save on cell phone charges. Combining these with HCSS’s HeavyJob field management software means a contractor can mix and match devices in connected and disconnected modes and handle jobs in even the most remote locations.

The big news at Dexter + Chaney, says Marketing Director Wayne Newitts, is that Version 14 of its Spectrum Construction Software is now not only fully compatible with tablet computing platforms, it’s the industry’s first construction management software to support a complete browser-based user interface. “With cloud-based computing,” says Newitts, “you reduce a huge amount of overhead because there are no servers to maintain and no loading and maintaining software.

“What Dexter + Chaney provides is enterprise software, from soup to nuts on how to run your construction business. We know our customers are going to be using tablets, Smartphones, iPhones, Androids, and we went through the effort of rewriting our software because we wanted to magnify its usability with these and all kinds of devices. You can use our new Spectrum with any device that has a browser. There are no other requirements.

“Technologically the cloud is much more secure because these hosted facilities tend to be less susceptible to social engineering. They have established a number of checks, they have to meet standards and they have to be able to prove they’ve had no breaches. And with properly designed software like ours, you can work offline or when you can’t get a connection. Then when you’re back online, you batch update the information you’ve been working with.”

Dexter + Chaney has also introduced a new project management collaboration product called Venture, which Newitts says sets the standard for product document control. “In construction documentation, version control and change management are vital. If you lose track of who said what and made changes to what and where that change order is, you just can’t run an efficient project. Our new software will show you an audit trail of who’s made what changes, and it will always present the latest version of a document. On top of that, add a bunch of tools to help you with RFIs and submittal management or invitation to bidding and a bunch of management tools, and what it amounts to is a new take on project management using documents as the foundation in one, web-based system that’s usable from any device.”

Applying What You Get
“If I were a contractor and I wanted to automate, I’d want to have an idea of what my future looks like,” says Steve McGough at HCSS. “That’s where a lot of companies miss the mark. Because it’s been our experience that you can’t really implement multiple software products across your company simultaneously. Every time you purchase software, you need to be looking at it from what’s your return on investment-where will it leave you in six months, a year, two years from now?

“It’s not necessarily about features,” says Nelson at Carlson. “It’s about how you put the tools that you have into production. So it’s the value of the features. That’s one of the things that as a software developer we really have to evaluate. We could write hundreds of new features, but what it boils down to is focusing on the things that make the client more productive-how does what you’re providing shorten some aspect or improve the quality of the work they’re doing?”

“We started out with HCSS’s Heavy Bid, went through the DOS then Windows versions and now we’re Citrex-based,” says Monty Claar, project estimator/manager at Glenn O. Hawbaker, Inc. in State College, PA. “We also use HeavyJob-we probably 150 users on that-and Viewpoint for our accounting. The critical thing is it’s all tied together. Software doesn’t manage itself so you have to take the time to set it up the way you want to see it used the first time, no matter how much time that takes. The way we’re set up, our jobs are all electronically transferred out of HCSS to Viewpoint at the same time they’re transferred to HeavyJob. So when the guys get their reports for field use, they not only get a page listing their labor and equipment and materials side of the job, they also get their HeavyJob file, which gives them the crew hours and activity summaries already preset with pre-made crews, foremen, laborers, operators.

“One of the biggest errors a company can make is assuming they can just piecemeal packages together without considering how this phase relates to accounting and how accounting is going to correlate to something like HeavyJob and back to the plants. We’ve even taken it as far as our material coding numbers to make sure the way our material is coded correlates with how the plants have their ticket. So all these packages talk to each other.

“We did most of this in-house because the major portion of making this software really work for you is how you set up your codes, your detailed codes versus activity, which are then correlated to phasings. We do what I call annual maintenance to make sure that every phase that comes out of HCSS is also a one-to-one relationship with a phase within Viewpoint, and if it’s not, the system flags it.

“We shoot for getting information from the field back to our system daily because the faster that information can get back to our project managers and superintendents, even down to the operators, the better. Then we go over this in a toolbox talk in the morning-maybe we didn’t make production yesterday and how can we make it better? One benefit is that we’re getting input from the guys in the field and that helps give you buy-in. Not all jobs go well, but on those where the problem is a production issue-maybe it’s a matter of adding another truck or taking away one hoe-real time information is the key.

“We critique updates and if it’s something that doesn’t affect us or benefit us somehow, it may just sit on the shelf. But if it’s something we need, it’s tried, mated to the system to make sure everything is working right and then it’s installed systemwide at a convenient time from a workload standpoint.”

“The economy was still going good when HeavyJob was coming out and we basically made a plan to bid the cost of it into the next big job we had,” says Casey Dillon, project manager and estimator, at Atlas Excavating in West Lafayette, IN. “It was an $100,000 expenditure by the time we bought laptops and including the training, but we found a job big enough to start a pilot program. Our accounting system has a package and a couple of other of our competitors had packages, but we knew HeavyJob was very compatible with the HeavyBid software we already had.

“One of the things that we were after was to know our true costs sooner. Our old system was very accurate, but it took a month-end closing and accounting to figure out where we really were. We could get pretty close, but with HeavyJob we know where we’re at on a daily basis, and this allows us to get better feedback to our estimators sooner. If it’s a 12-month job, you’re talking about a year to learn from any errors you’ve made. Using this software we can notify the estimators in two weeks if there’s something missing or there’s a mistake so they’re bidding new jobs the right way.

“The more of what you do that is digital and stays digital, the less problems you’re going to have. Besides Windows-based HeavyBid for estimating and HeavyJob for job costing, we use HCSS’s equipment manager, Dispatcher, and also their Fleet Management 360 program. We used to aim for 65% utilization from our equipment and now with better tracking and monitoring, we’re closer to 90%. If what we’re experiencing now with the economy is the new normal, the key is to get more usefulness out of what you’ve already got.”

“You have to be open and understand your market,” says Hannes Schneider, estimator and project manager at R.J. Grondin & Sons, a family owned contracting firm based in Gorham, ME. “We aim for $30 to $35 million a year in volume. We’re not quite doing that in this economy, but we’re doing $25 to $27, and I think a lot of it has to do with our technology.”

“We do a lot of municipal and DOT work,” says Jed Cook, Grondin’s survey/machine controls coordinator, “and in Maine it’s paper heavy. There’s a lot of cross-sections, and the grades can be difficult to figure out without a lot of work on paper. Carlson Takeoff has a big roads module that streamlines a lot of that-and not just for machine-control modeling for the bulldozers and excavators, but also for the estimators. So I use Carlson take off and parts of Carlson Survey.”

“As an estimator I use Agtek’s cross-sections program, Highway 3D, for my takeoffs says Schneider. “And on private work we use Agtek’s 3d Sitework because the private work doesn’t have cross-sections; they’re just done with plan view topography, and Agtek’s Sitework 3D product is very friendly in creating models out of plan view.

But whenever I have a little issue or a problem with a job that requires me going back and measuring something off cross-sections, Jed can do it a lot quicker for me with his Carlson software.

“Depending on what we’re doing, I end up making models for every single job when we’re biding them just to figure out things like cuts and fills. With the economy the way it is, we’ve been doing a lot of DOT work in the last few years and for building the fine model that Jed builds, Carlson has some pretty serious advantages over Agtek.

“One of the jobs I’m the estimator and project manager on is for a 2.5 miles of a bike path. All things considered the construction is pretty simple. We estimated using Agtek’s Highway 3D program, and we were obviously successful in getting the bid by using that. But then it’s a little bit more complicated in building the actual model for it. Jed has done a lot of work on the job going back and forth between Agtek and heavily applying Carlson to make it actually what they want constructed.”

“Some of the data came from the state,” says Cook, “which farmed out the engineering. They gave us the engineer’s version of the 3D model. It wasn’t machine grade. It wasn’t really anything grade, so I used Carlson to do most of this modeling because there’s a lot of functions in Carlson’s road software that can speed that up. You can put in a lot of the typicals and a lot of the shape of the road with a few keystrokes instead of hours punching in every grade at every location.

“As far as the actual construction of it, using a stakeless system like we do, I’m going to guess we did the job greater than 50% faster with 75% less people.

There was a place on the job where we had to build the trail to a peat bog, which you couldn’t drive machines in it. There would have been two more crews up there messing with this if we didn’t have computers in the machine. Using Topcon GPS and laser millimeter system we graded a mile and a half in about 14 hours, fine graded, checked, in the book within tolerances, done.

“As an estimator in this economy, I have to have some level of confidence that if I bid my production rates very aggressively because we need work, I know we can perform. If I can take a CAD file and do my custom fills on any type of job quickly and efficiently because of my software package, this gives me more time to use my brain in the allotted bid time and figure out how to get the job. That’s really how you become not only the low bidder but also the successful low bidder.

“We took this bike path job-it’s basically $1 million job, and it’s three and a half months worth of work-and we’re doing it with five people. And we’re on schedule.”

More on Technology and Following Up
“The best part of mobile apps is convenience,” says Dillon, “My guys with smart phones can enter time and capture photographs to their diary entries and send them from their phone. The information goes directly into the office and they don’t have to touch it again. A laptop is more technical and it takes more time to start it up and establish a wi-fi connection-if it takes 15 minutes they won’t do it.”

“At Gronin we use laptops in our pickups,” says Cook. “Everyone’s connected-all the field supervisors use a laptop with Internet. Most of us are using smart phones and e-mailing constantly because it saves a lot of time over having a lump of e-mails to answer at the end of the day.

“As far as CAD type construction data, most of this is through e-mail and the smart phone. That’s not as tight as a paper trail, but some of it’s pretty important and e-mail brings a lot of it to us when we need it. I also use cell phones for tying our network together and communicating with my base stations. Our pit and quarry manager has been looking at a tablet for load counts and those sorts of things, so I’d say that’s also coming.”

And for sharpening skills and keeping up to date, user conferences get the nod. “We send people to pick up new things,” says Claar, “to learn about enhancements that can speed up the way we use our system and to exchange with other contractors about the way they use the software. We’ve sent as many as 16 people. We also do in-house training, where we get everyone in a room at one time, sometimes as many as 35 to 40 people, to sort out how we do things and talk about updates and share ideas.”

Dillon also likes user conferences because they keep him abreast of what HCSS is up to and give him a chance to provide input on what he’d like to see included in the next software update. “Two months before we go we start to collect information on any problems we might be having and I put all this together in a spread sheet. I don’t get all of what’s on our wish list, but I get two or three out of 10 each time we go. At the conference we exchange information with other contractors on how they’re using the software and what they’re doing generally-that’s what it’s all about, meeting people, networking, learning how to use the software better. Like the mobile apps-I’m on the group that’s consulting on the Heavy Job mobile apps, and given what HCSS is developing, we are now being able to do some of the things instantly that we wanted to get done in the past and couldn’t get done.”