Where to Begin

March 25, 2021

Takeoff software is a critical tool for grading and excavation contractors in ensuring accuracy and correcting estimating errors throughout the life of a project. 

Accuracy is all about risk management,” notes Steve Warfle, product manager, InSite Software. “Knowing exact quantities allows contractors to bid aggressively without worrying about the unknown in the least amount of time. Our end-users can bid multiple jobs in the least amount of time, ensuring tight bidding time frames are met. 

“The better the estimate’s accuracy, the better the volumes, the tighter the bid and pricing,” says Sanjeev Saha, product manager for civil construction software systems at Trimble. “The better the estimatethe more profitable the job. 

Eliza Smith, vice president, Roctek International, concurs. 

Accuracy is great for winning bids and necessary for winning highly competitive bids, but the real benefit becomes apparent when you begin to win enough bids that you can get picky and only accept the jobs that you wantusually those with a higher ROI,” she says. 

Trimble’s software provides surface-to-surface and grid volume calculationsgiving the operator multiple ways to check their earthwork volumes. 

Other critical accuracy calculations include material shrink and swell factors, notes Saha. 

Another key option is to compare different surfaces such as an original ground from a CAD file and an actual field run topo of the job site,” he says. 

Trimble software is designed to allow the end-user to create single projects with multiple surfaces and layers.  

If a takeoff is created from a CAD filethat same data can be potentially used for a constructible model for field applications,” says Saha. “Accuracy is critical in the construction process and so is speed and productionTrimble software is designed to provide both to the end-user. 

Contractors benefit by easily visualizing their project’s timeline, schedule, and cost,” notes Barkley Hensley, product manager, Topcon Positioning Group. 

By starting with the end in mind from the take-off’ of the project, the solution from TopconMAGNET Projectenables professionals to monitor their project’s materials as well as schedule and costs,” he says. “The contractor can define all of their estimates and planning to proactively manage the project from start to finish.  

Unforeseen issues can arise, such as when trench digging and/or an unknown water line is encountered, which requires scheduling and possible cost adjustments. It might require the water company to come out, which creates a delay. With the Topcon solution, the manager can adjust the schedule and required tasks to keep the overall project moving while waiting on the fix. 

Takeoff software helps contractors mitigate the problem of over- or underestimating projects. 

Underestimating or overestimating projects usually happens when a contractor is faced with a job site that is either too large or simply too complicated to estimate quickly, Smith points out. 

By making even the most complicated site work simple and fast to enter, Roctek’s software is designed to help encourage estimators to stop cutting corners and ballparking certain aspects of their site when it is just not necessary to hit their deadline,” Smith adds. 

The biggest issue Marco Cecala, technical consultant for Take-Off Professionalsobserves with contractors is their approach to dirt volumes during estimating.  

We help contractors by processing their drone or LIDAR topographies and providing them with accurate quantities,” he adds. 

Topsoil stripping, demolition, subgrade boxout, and soil borings all have a significant effect on quantity takeoff. 

“These often aren’t considered in the engineer’s original calculations,” says Warfle. “InSite Elevation allows this data to be entered quickly with immediate visual validation that the numbers are correct. 

Saha notes there are usually two critical errors in estimating. 

The first relates to material properties: shrink, swellcompaction ratios. The second error can be an inaccurate original ground earthwork surface 

Trimble software helps with these two issues and is designed to provide more value when combined with field survey solutions, Saha adds. 

A trend in advanced estimates includes checking the original ground on projects,” he says. “This could be done with a traditional total station, a robotic total station, GPS survey, or the latest technology of drone surveys. 

Combining an accurate original ground survey with proper material quantities gives the best information for an accurate earthwork estimate, says Saha, adding that Trimble software is designed to provide all the needed advanced functionality to calculate the proper earthwork numbers.  

Time issues and execution estimates can be problematic for contractors, notes Hensley.  

With the software, you have an accurate view of where you are and where you are going at all times,” he points out 

New features in the software options that abound in the marketplace are optimizing the ability for contractors to meet their project goals.  

When assessing the benefit of new features in takeoff software, it’s important to look for time-saving commands, which are always anticipated in any new release, says Cecala. 

Software developers look for ways to reduce the effort for common tasks,” he adds. 

Many takeoff projects now come from CAD files, Saha points out. 

Trimble’s software is designed with highly advanced features to work with existing CAD data.  

The secret to quick and consistent takeoffs is to be able to start from a template,” he says. “With a template, all your standard settings are already set and you are ready to start working with data. Templates can include layers, materials, unit settings, conversion factors, and much more, creating the ability to process any job quickly. 

Project and data cleanup tools also are critical for speed and accuracy, says Saha, adding that Trimble provides tools to automatically elevate data, remove duplicate data, and remove empty CAD layers at the project’s start. 

One of the software’s newest features is the report display of the final numbers.  

Trimble combined formats from its legacy Paydirt takeoff software and updated graphical volume data.  

The user can quickly see a graphical representation of volumes from the project,” says Saha. “Graphical data shows how much import and export material there is as well as strata and stripping quantities.  

The ability to add custom functionality to the program is another new feature. 

Trimble Macro Language (TML) allows users to create or purchase third-party custom features for additional productivity with special niche applications,” says Saha. 

In its software’s newest features, Topcon has emphasized creating a visual interface for a user-friendly experience, says Hensley 

InSite Sitework redesigned its software product based on more than 30 years of experience in designing earthwork takeoff software and customer input, says Warfle. 

“Along the way, each feature was assessed for its power, ease of use, and productivity,” he adds. “What our developers have come up with has met all of our design objectives. The software's ease of use and speed is a major improvement.  

For example, takeoffs are often done across multiple PDFs with existing on one plan at 60 feet per inch and proposed on four separate plans at 30 feet per inch. InSite Elevation allows users to open all plans simultaneously and use data from any sheet, working across match lines.  

Smith acknowledges that the industry is quickly embracing the latest technologies such as drone data and GPS integration, but notes that the most valuable feature of takeoff software such as that offered by Roctek is a "customer-first approach" that previously did not exist.  

That has been the focus of Roctek’s efforts, she says, adding that “the entire industry has made strides with usability and training.  

You are no longer expected to be a civil engineer or have 20 years of field experience to be good at estimating,” Smith says. “Having the ability to creatively solve a wealth of problems with the tools that you have while quoting an accurate price is no longer an expectation of an elite estimatorits simply the expectation of the field, period. No single feature does thisit’s a set of features and training processes that all are long overdue.” 

ExcaVision designs and manufactures monitors, electronic devices for excavators and bulldozers that measure the depth of excavation. Sensors are placed on the boom, stick, and bucket and a laser receiver enables to contractor to dig with precision, using the touchscreen from the cab. 

“It’s a time-saver because the end-usersespecially small contractorsthey don't have a helper to measure the depth of a basement or foundation. So they have this instrument instead. And that saves a lot of time and money,” notes Kris Ingvarsson, president of ExcaVision.  

One of its benefits is in measuring an exact depth for such projects as digging a trench or sewer, says Ingvarsson. 

It’s often difficult to “eyeball” what needs to be done from the excavator, he notes. 

“Also, if you're digging a foundation for a house or a building, you don't want to over-dig because you'll be losing concrete,” he says. “It’s about accuracy. If you’re digging a hole for a septic tank that has to be seven feet deep and seven feet wideyou want the bottom to be perfectly level and the embankments to be perfectly vertical.  

One of the ways to dig an embankment or ramp is to do it without a laser. 

“This is the straightforward way,” notes Ingvarsson. “Just enter the slope of the ramp and use the ‘zero on bucket’ method, then dig the ramp, one bucket width at a time, then move the excavator by one bucket width until the ramp is complete.” 

Another method is to dig the ramp using a rotating laser. 

“Set up the rotating laser by the ramp, dial in the slope as needed, then use the laser light as the reference for the ramp,” says Ingvarsson. “The rotating laser will be emitting a beam that is parallel to the ramp slope at a certain height above it. 

“To rebench, just take the Ocalaser to the receiver light and wait until you see ‘rebenched’ on the screen. The display will show the depth of the tip of the bucket from the laser light. The rotating laser on the ground gives you a perfect level and is used as a reference for anything like basements and trenches.” 

Ultimately there are features that contractors lean on when it comes to software use. 

Saha notes Trimble users favor:  

  • Importing 3D models from other sources and verifying data before machine control 

  • Importing PDF data and creating takeoffs and estimates 

  • Importing CAD data and creating takeoffs and 3D models for construction 

  • Project cleanup tools for cleaning up CAD files (data prep and cleanup tools) 

  • Earthwork volumes for quantities and bids 

  • Functions for exporting data directly to Trimble field equipment 

  • Functions for processing and creating Point Cloud files from drones 

  • Specialty tools for creating drilling and piling plans and utility trenches 

  • Survey calculation and processing of data 

The calendar feature is one of the big money-saving features of Topcon’s MAGNET Project, notes Hensley. 

“It gives them the ability to easily change from the original plan due to delays and other factors,” he says. “Progress monitoring is another favored feature as it lets the contractor easily know how much material has been moved, must be moved, and what remainscombined with the most optimized methods in accomplishing the work.  

Visual validation is useful for InSite Software end users to prove the numbers and collaborate with others on the project, says Warfle.  

InSite provides animated 3Ds, cross-sections, and cut and fill shading overlaid over the original PDF and CAD documents,” he adds. “Clear, easy-to-read reports all help the contractor bid more aggressively and prove their numbers during quantity disputes, which ultimately leads to more profit. 

Each job is different. InSite Elevation provides estimators with tools that address the individual needs of each job. Comprehensive features like the Dynamic Site Balancer, staging tools, utility and area/length takeoff, and design tools for undeveloped sites are critical tools depending on the job. 

The single biggest advantage of the software is project tracking, notes Cecala.  

“An initial topo is gathered by LIDAR or drone providing the contractor with accurate dirt numbers. A model is built for accurate grading and layout on the job,” he says. 

Progress payment invoicing is done by confirming the completion percentage with interim topo files. This prevents billing from getting ahead or behind the actual work. 

Takeoff software has proven useful to the life of a project. 

Takeoff from PDF and CAD files are common early in the project, notes Warfle. 

“Site surveys from GPS, total stations, and drones also can be imported into Elevation to ensure absolute accuracy and validate topo’s, do as-builts, among other factors,” he adds. “Since InSite Elevation uses triangulation for surface generation, exporting models to any brand of GPS machine control is easy. Much of the modeling work is done on the takeoff. Creating a model usually means just adding more line work to improve triangulation and increase accuracy.”  

“When you use software to estimate a project, the same file can be used to calculate progress on a job,” says Cecala. “A surface file is sent to the field for machine control and layout. Data collected from the field is sent to the office to verify accuracy and chart progress.” 

Smith notes that “quantities are a fluid concept until the ground is broken and your takeoff answers questionsWhether it’s a change order or trying to reach some bottom line, the first time you complete your takeoff will not be the only time you see it during a project.”  

Anytime a contractor can enlist the advantage of technology, results are improved, notes Cecala 

Takeoff Professionals is a company to which contractors turn when looking for experience, he says.  

"We use different software daily and know what to use to get cost-effective results for a given situation," Cecala notes. “Many contractors do not have an extensive tool kit available or use it with enough frequency to leverage advanced features.” 

Considering the six common phases of any projectplan, survey, design, execute, inspect and maintaina “good takeoff software such as the Topcon solution used from start to finish provides the foundation for continuing inspection and maintenance tasks,” notes Hensley. “It improves the efficiency, profitability and ultimately the sustainability of the completed project.”  

Trimble software is key for every project’s life, especially when combined with the full construction technology portfolio, notes Saha. 

“As the project starts, accurate volumes are created for an estimate,” he says. “Field technology is used and the data is brought back into the software for verification. As the job progresses, updated surfaces are generated directly from field equipment, GPS, and drones.  

“The data is sent into Trimble software to get updated progress quantities to verify the project is on schedule. After a project, reports, volumes, and printouts also can be generated for final payments and archived for records.”