Rethinking Takeoff Software

March 15, 2013
“If you don’t have confidence in your takeoff, it’s worthless,” says Coy Lowden, estimator/project manager at Lowden Excavating Inc. in Kyle, TX, “You might as well not have done it.”

True enough, but how do you get there? Four years ago onscreen takeoffs all but made digitizers obsolete. The current standard, from Roctek to Trimble, is the ability to import and work with vector PDFs. Three-D is another feature, and depending on how far you want to go, both Topcon and Trimble are focusing on integrated packages that can take you from takeoff to machine control. But how much is enough? Choosing takeoff software is a matter of the type of jobs you do, the experience of whoever’s sitting at the computer, and what, if anything, you want to do with the data beyond the takeoff. Add to that the considerations of usability and price.

“Most of the software out there today is going to give you the same calculation,” says Matt Gebarowski, president of DirtLogic, which assists contractors, civil engineers, and landscape architects in determining the most efficient way to deal with site grading. “For me, the two biggest things are how easy the software is to use and how responsive the company is when I need them. Contractors want to push the button and start tracing. And if there’s anything more complicated than that, it better be pretty easy to get through.

“The difference is night and day with a program that can take the PDF or the CAD files from the PDF, digitize it in, and create a surface. Other things you want to keep in mind are Can your software import a PDF while you’re using an AutoCAD file? How about converting your cross sections into a surface-is that a separate module you’re going to pay extra for? This is becoming more and more of an issue because DOTs are all still kicking out cross sections for roads.”

“Everybody pretty much does the same thing,” says Barkley Hensley at Topcon. “What counts is what you have to do to get to the end result and how long it takes you. And being compatible with the hardware you’re using. Whether you’re doing site development or road building, every contractor basically needs the same set of tools. Even the small mom and pops.”

“We were a Paydirt dealer for 15 years before we started selling Carlson,” says Tim Edes, at Eastpoint Lasers in Hooksett, NH. “Carlson is not the easiest software to learn, but it’s worth it because it does so much more. We’ve also found there’s a need for a very simple, inexpensive software for someone who really doesn’t like the computer-the kind of contractor who might be running a bulldozer during the day and then at night has to figure cuts and fills. He may do a dirt takeoff, get a job and then he’s not on the computer using that program again for six months.”

With these comments in mind we surveyed software developers at both ends of the spectrum about what’s new and then asked some of their customers how they’re using what the companies have developed.

Roctec spotlighted the following features for WinEx Master: 1) the ability to import vector PDF’s-the program will prompt users and can handle solid and dotted lines; objects can be imported sequentially as single items or by entire layers; 2) Proprietary LineTracker technology that allows users to sweep the mouse to automatically trace and snap to the contour line, including the capability to cross over barriers of intersecting lines for a potential 40% savings in trace times; 3) PlanBuilder, which allows you to “stitch together” PDF sheets so takeoff, quantities and graphic displays are all integrated as a single job (the original drawing files are not modified and you can refer back to them at any time); 4) the Alternate Plan feature to move the takeoff to any number of alternate plans and work in each of them as if it were the original and make any of the alternate plans the primary job plan and expand or contract the total limit of disturbance as needed.

Mark Bray, project manager and estimator at utilities contractor Nelson Lewis Inc. in Marble Falls, TX, says he uses Roctec exclusively for site work and to calculate materials in jobs that require paving, concrete work, revegtation, and erosion control-and also for pipe distances and to do counts for valve locations where everything is on one plan page. “When I’m blasting, we’ll use it because when we do the takeoff on the trenches, it calculates the spoils much better than our estimating software does.

Bray finds Roctec’s grid system an advantage. “I can make that grid as big or as small as I want, for more or less detail. If I’m working in a flat job, I can have a big grid, and if I’m working on a job that has lots of hills and valleys, I can use a smaller gird and it pins down my quantities better.”

A clean interface is primary in Earthworks software from Trakware. “Most of our customers don’t do takeoffs all that often,” says Trakware President Gregg LaPore. “They need something they can pick up and be productive with quickly, without having to spend time in training classes.

“The vector PDF is a sea change for our users. Not only speed, but because you’re pulling the actual lines out of the PDF, also accuracy. We do a lot of error checking and have ways of automating, catching, and flagging statistically unlikely errors. We can display all of the elevation information as topographically colored by elevation, which makes it easy to catch subtle errors.

Because he doesn’t have a CAD background, Lowden bypassed software that’s CAD-based and geared for machine control as too big of a learning curve for the time he had. “I tried Earthworks and hit the ground running. I do the takeoff with Earthworks and then manually transfer it over to my estimating software.

Lowden also uses Earthworks for invoicing. “If I’ve got a subdivision where we’ve installed 25,000 square yards of road base material in a month, I go out to the site, visit, see where we’re at the on job, come back, and specifically measure out just that area for a very accurate draw request.

“If I have boring logs available that show me the different strata of the ground, I can label the strata. That’s important in our area where we have limestone, which is significantly more costly to excavate than black dirt. The software helps create an underlying typography of the limestone shelf on a project and how much heavy versus easy digging I’m I going to be doing.

“Earthwork’s vector PDF feature is phenomenal,” says Charles Hassinger at CR Hassinger Consulting in Raleigh, NC. “Importing contour data from the CAD file reduces takeoff time by 60% to 70% and vastly improves the accuracy of the volume quantities. I’m able to adjust and balance finish grades over the whole site or in specific areas to achieve the most cost-effective finished product that works for the site and moves the least amount of dirt. I use it to design the proposed contours, working with very little existing contour data to produce a finish design that I can use to create a cost spreadsheet for the site work. Several of my clients depend heavily on my cost of development figures as part of their decision process on the purchase of property for development. If your business deals with the design of a project as to final proposed elevations and determining how much dirt has to be moved you can’t afford to not use this program.”

On Center Software was founded in 1988 to build a more efficient way to complete the takeoff and estimating process, says Angelo Castelli, vice president of operations. “And that’s still core when we expand features for On-Screen Takeoff, Quick Bid, and Digital Production Control. Our solutions are best deployed when they’re implemented from preconstruction through to the build process.”

Highlights of the newest features include Windows 8 compatibility, multicondition takeoff, auto-zoom and autolinear continuous, one-step auto count, extended customization, and expanded license management tracking. “Our users like the ability to track their software assets (office, home, and onsite) as well as have protection from employee theft. Estimators and project managers can customize the interface to how they work.”

“I think we’re stuck for a long period of time with PDFs and image files,” says Steve Warfle at Insite Software, Inc. “I think that’s going to be a popular way of document distribution for a long, long time. And truly there’s some tremendous advantage to image files, although ultimately it would ideal if CAD files were also available.

“Realistically, takeoff is a production job, which means we have to get it done as quickly as possible. Those 10 jobs you bid to get the one you end up working on are just overhead, which makes accuracy the name of the game. That way, when you are awarded a project, you know you’re actually going to make some money on it. The second thing is to minimize the time you spend doing a takeoff so you can produce more of them and potentially get more jobs. With small to mid-size contractors, the estimator often wears a bunch of different hats. Our goal is to minimize takeoff time so he can do that.

“What’s new is our capability to import vector PDF files, an interface that allows you to use dual screens so you can work at a high-detail level while you’re seeing where you are in an overall job, and 3D live, which gives you instant feedback of your work in real time. Open the 3D feature anytime during the takeoff and instantly you can see updates as you add data to the existing, proposed, or subgrade surfaces. The 3-D Live graphics are built from the triangulation and are stunning. Use the Drive/Fly command to navigate the site from an operator’s vantage point to scale.

“Takeoffs using our software can be done from image files-PDF, TIF, JPG or CAD (.DWG) files-or from paper plans using an optional digitizer. When we do demos, I ask customers to send us PDF of their job because when they see our demo file and how it behaves, they think it’s some magic file I have. When we went to PDF, we made a one-screen version, put it on beta testing, and the opinion was that it’s really good for doing little jobs, but not so when you get to the big stuff. So we put in a dual-screen interface. With two pointers, you’re never going to have a question where you are, but you also have the ability to work at a highly detailed level quickly, and that’s really what the nature of a PDF is.”

Ease of use, says Warfle, is also a matter of knowing what you want and spending time to get familiar with the software. “One of our customers has been running Insite for a long time. Small contractor, not a real technically savvy guy, but a full-speed ahead contractor. We shipped him this new version, and he didn’t install it on his computer. He said he liked his digitizer. He’s happy with that and is sticking with it, although he did sign up for one our regional advanced classes. We have developed video help in our software. We take our user manual very seriously, and we offer 24-hour tech support. But the challenge for a lot of customers is they don’t have the time, which is why we run training classes all over the country and push this kind of regional training. The idea is to get contractors out of their work environment and focused on learning.”

“ProContractor MX from Maxwell Systems is a feature-rich system for takeoff and estimating with 3D visual assemblies, digital and digitizer integration, CAD file integration, automatic scaling, and more that Maxwell Systems says can be used by nearly any size and type of construction company and allows sitework contractors to properly verify earthwork using a 3D, grid, or section view of elevations.

“Every single contractor in this country, from the $500,000-a-year contractor to the billion-dollar-a-year contractor has a need for digital takeoffs,” says Maxwell Systems’ Mike Gillum, director of product management-estimating. “To accommodate digital files, we provide AutoCAD features, which tell you when you’ve imported a file that’s missing elevation data and sends you to the tool to use to assign elevations. One of the program’s best features is the ability to manage sheet revisions. A contractor receives the original drawing, performs all of his takeoffs, and the job has either been won and they’re working it or it’s in the bidding phase and they receive a revision. This feature allows them to take the original drawing on which they’ve performed their takeoff, overlay the revised drawing on top of the original and identify each of the changes. You can select a color scheme that shows the original and the revisions, so instead of having to takeoff that entire sheet, you can focus specifically on those changes alone. This feature has saved our contractors tens of thousands of hours.

“The software can export to an Excel spreadsheet, an ASCII file or a text file. We also have a standalone digital takeoff product that will integrate with any third-party software that can read those three formats for customers who may have already purchased a separate estimating or project management software but want to use our takeoff.

“We’ve tried to keep it simple with all of our software, but specifically on the estimating side and digital takeoff side, we offer different training formats that include videos on line, free webinars on a weekly basis, a training manual built right into the system, and training on demand. As long as you know how to read a set of blueprints, you can use this software. If you don’t know how to read a set of blueprints, we have a partnership with The Construction Estimating Institute, which offers blueprint and excavation courses and our customers get a substantial discount when they attend those sessions.”

“We stay up to date with AutoCAD,” says Todd Carlson, product development manager for Carlson takeoff software. “Our software comes with an AutoCAD engine, which is what 90% of civil engineers are using. Effectively, we’ve borrowed the core engine of AutoCAD, which is very strong with manipulating line work, but we added an easier interface and workflow for contractors.  “We’ve been in land surveying software for 30 years and we’re also in civil engineering software, and a lot of those capabilities are in our takeoff software. Beyond estimating, people can go out and shoot an as-built and bring it back in the software. We have all the tools a civil engineer would have to build a road, which might be overkill for some people, but on highways and more complex roads, a contractor would be accurate if they used some of the civil engineering tools we offer.

“Because our modeling is triangulation based, any point in the contour lines that has an elevation is used in the model, which are as accurate as your data-as opposed to a grid-based model where you have an elevation every 5 feet or so and miss information in between. Three features users could miss are drill hole, trenching, and the survey capabilities. If you’re working from a CAD file, we have a command, Drawing Cleanup, that can fix a lot of common issues in a drawing, like elevation busts and bad line work. This is all included for our price of the software. None of it is add-on modules. We also have the most open platform and data collection software that has the most drivers to run Topcon or Trimble or Leica instruments.”

“The two companies I worked for before used Agteck,” says Tony Chase, estimator at Chase Building Group in Doylestown, PA, “but when it came time for me to buy software for myself, the first thing that attracted me to Carlson was that it’s about $10,000 cheaper. But I didn’t want to sell myself short so I did more research. I found that not only was Carlson $10,000 cheaper, the software is much more powerful. People like me who are familiar with AutoCAD are in a recognizable environment, plus some of the features work the same way as Agtek.

“On one project we bid and won, I did the takeoff on Carlson and the client asked me to go out and dig some test pits. Back in the old days I would sit down and take my test pit information and identify where all the rock was at each test and plot it out with colored pencils on the paper plan. Instead I went through the software menu, saw there was a drill-hole menu, got started with my Carlson College training consultant, printed the four or five pages out of the manual off the Internet, and within an hour I had all the rock plotted. There are layers upon layers of features. All you need is the right project, one that’s big and complex enough, and you’ll going discover more and more features you can use. “

Jason Lambrich, product manager for Site Productivity Solutions in the Heavy Civil Construction Division, calls Trimble’s Business Center Heavy Construction Edition a one-stop shop. “It’s designed for construction operations, takeoffs, building 3D models and doing earthworks optimization, as well as writing machine files,” he says. “The customer can import data, do a takeoff, do data prep, do earth optimization and send the data out to the field, using the site prep data to build the 3D models for machine control.

Top features of Business Center include: 1) 3D contour-based (site) or cross-section-based (road) quantity takeoffs using Trimble’s layer-based vector PDF data extraction techniques; 2) the ability to cleanup CAD and vector PDF data and to use automated methods for quickly elevating lines and points to create 3D data for data prep and takeoff workflows; 3) seamless integration with field systems for fast output of 3D data to field crews and machines via manual or cloud-based synchronization; and 4) earthworks planning for mass-haul calculations to determine how to most economically move dirt on a site or road project.

Twenty years ago,” says Mike Wahlin, GPS grading systems engineer at Reynolds Brothers Inc. in Midvale, UT,” we bought Paydirt, which at the time was the best takeoff software out there. But this Business Center is without a doubt the best. Business Center is not quite as easy to use as Sitework, but it’s much more powerful. There have been some things I’ve had to call Trimble about, but so far there hasn’t been anything I’ve wanted to do that I couldn’t. I just needed to have to a little education to do it.

“Checking is a big deal in estimating, making sure you’re right. And prior to Business Center the only real way you could check your work was to make a three dimensional model of the project. If you had any big spikes or holes, you knew you had a problem and you could go on and fix it. But that’s about all you could do with it. Business Center provides an infinite way of cross-sectioning the drawing, which is very helpful in zooming in on areas. And the newest function, Drive the Site, allows you to pick up any small irregularities from an operator’s perspective, then fix whatever it is.

“I was an estimator for 20 years, and I still do some estimating, but my biggest responsibility now is automated grading control systems, GPS. Prior to Business Center, we would do a takeoff in one software, take the digital information from the engineer in another software, and then go to another software to put it into a language that the equipment understands out on the job site. Business Center is a really one-stop shop. After you do the takeoff, all you do is simply plug the earthwork equipment in and you’re on your way. And in the other direction, the earthwork equipment has the capability of recording where it’s at on any given day or week. That data comes back through the system and you can get an up-to-date, day-by-day, week-by-week calculations of how much work has been done.

“Right now we have 14 machines with machine control on them, and management is looking at what they want to spend next year. I did a study and listed the benefits of machine control. Safety is first-it takes a crew member off the ground and out of the way of the heavy equipment. Second, it saves the money we’d spend on an outside survey. Third, we’re able to put it to grade once, the first time, because the operators have a read-out right in front of them. With our 14 machines, I figured we were saving a million dollars a year. We include a small fee on the machines to cover the cost, and we figure we picked up $1 million last year. Between the savings and the earnings, there’s about a million-and-a-half dollars in the bank that wouldn’t there without this system.

“My goal as the product manager for Magnet Site is a solution that starts at the very beginning of the project,” says Hensley. “You need a topo survey? Fine, bring it in. PDFs and AutoCAD drawings, DGM drawings? Bring them in, get what you need out of them, elevate them if you have to and move on. Then stick it all in the Cloud or transfer it to your machines.

“What we’re working on is a start-to-finish Topcon solution. If you only do data prep, you get the data prep package. If you do site takeoff or road takeoff, we have different packages for that. We have workflow guides and wizards built into the program to guide you through each of those steps. Say you’re designing an access road or a highway, and you have your alignment in what is now called the survey view but will eventually be called the CAD view. Once you have your alignment, you can pick it up and switch to road view, which has very specific menus for that function and no superfluous commands. Everything you need is situated in that view and you’re not having to hunt and peck for what you need to put in a profile, pull your cross-sections, or build your template. That doesn’t mean that those commands aren’t laid out sporadically in the program in different menus, but we’ve centralized them for different applications. There’s six modes of operation when you first open the software. You click on whichever mode you want to work in. If you’re doing a site takeoff from a PDF, you click on that mode and it shrinks the menus and icons on the toolbars down to just that specific workflow and guides you through that process.

“The contractor doesn’t want a lot of bells and whistles,” says Mark Larranaga, Topcon’s software business development manager. “He doesn’t want to have to learn a bunch of commands to get a line or a contour into a drawing. Magnet Site is a very robust product, but because of the routines we use, you don’t have to make a lot of choices. We give customers the option of changing the settings and the look and feel of their software. But if all you want is the line to come in, you tell it that and you don’t have to do any more.”

For customers who don’t have the capital to invest in the software, Topcon has initiated a software leasing program. “We had customers who were buying one or two seats for their company but needed more,” says Larranaga. “Now they can lease month to month or for a term. There’s a one-month minimum and you can pay monthly or if you can project how long you’ll need it, pay in advance.

Aside from saving money, leasing provides the opportunity to use the software and evaluate if it’s for you. And when you come down to it, that’s what it’s all about.