A recently published survey indicated that 30 percent of the responding mechanical contractors reported profits were down by an average of 27 percent. They reported a market peppered with “suicidal bidding,” as well as more bidders per job.

But maybe that suicidal bidding was from a contractor who knew his costs more precisely beforehand, managed those costs on a day-to-day basis, and counted on prefab to save time and money. Just maybe that contractor is profiting from technology while it’s the others who are slowly committing suicide.

Maybe you’ve wondered how some mechanical contractors can produce low bids and still make enough profit to stay in business. These companies may be using mechanical CAD systems to help them reduce material and labor costs by taking the guesswork out of estimating. Their systems also produce professional-looking, machine-drawn drawings quickly. Working with drawings on a computer also makes adjusting drawings in response to changes at the jobsite a snap. This reduces labor and headaches for workers at every level of the construction process — from architect to you the contractor to the onsite laborers.

Here are some reasons why it may be the right time to consider a mechanical CAD system for your business:

  • Many projects require a CAD system. Automation enables mechanical contractors to coordinate work schedules with all the trades working on the job. Because this automation increases productivity, many projects now require mechanical contractors to provide CAD drawings. If you don’t have a CAD system, you may not even be allowed to bid certain jobs. If you can’t bid jobs, you certainly can’t win them.

    Companies that own mechanical CAD systems say just owning them has become a tremendous sales tool. One company uses the professional-looking CAD drawings “to impress clients during pre-bid and bid presentation” meetings. Another CAD user negotiated $4 million of new work based on the professional look of his drawings alone. Yet another mechanical contractor uses his CAD system to sell fabrication work.

  • Easier prefab and modification of spool pieces. As you know, it’s much cheaper to build spool in the shop rather than at the jobsite. Some CAD systems produce spool sheets that contain a drawing of the spool and a list of materials needed to build it. This means you can print spool sheets as soon as you finish doing the drawings. Then you can schedule shop production at your convenience, without regard for site construction schedules. Not only is shop labor less expensive than field labor, but your workers are fabricating in controlled conditions with access to all the tools they need. Since labor accounts for 35-55 percent of the total cost of a project, reducing labor cost can be a big money-saver.

    The controlled conditions of a shop lead to other benefits. You can predict much more accurately what it costs to produce each spool, which makes your final estimate more accurate. Also, once the spools are built, you can ship them to the site as needed for installation, further reducing onsite material handling labor and storage costs. This also reduces the amount of time spent trying to work around other trades in the same areas of the site. Finally, quality control is improved because conditions in the shop are uniform from one product to the next. Supervision and inspection can take place regularly because supervisors and inspectors are always within shouting distance.

  • Automatic bill of materials. In addition to producing spool sheets. CAD systems can produce a bill of materials for the project. As you draw the blueprint on the computer, you choose the materials you need. The system stores a list of these materials, which it can sort and total into a bill of materials. You can print this list and save yourself the time-consuming task of manually totaling materials for an estimate. CAD systems can print a list of materials with total pipe lengths and fittings broken down by size and material. These numbers help you estimate the cost of materials and labor more quickly.
  • Quicker response time to design changes. Every project changes over the course of construction. With a mechanical CAD system, you can file exchanges more quickly and efficiently with other contractors, architects and engineers on a project. Having your drawings on a computerized system means you only have to redraw the parts that change — not the entire drawing. This eliminates the labor hours required to redraw backgrounds.
  • Flexibility in value engineering. Some mechanical CAD products allow a user to perform “what if” scenarios. What if scenarios help explore alternative methods of construction that might be less expensive. A typical what if situation is to build a system using buttweld pipe, run a cost estimate, then place grooved pipe on the system, and run another estimate. You can compare the two estimates to see which material is more cost effective both in material cost and labor for fabrication and installation. With a mechanical CAD system, you can run what ifs in a matter of minutes. This type of experimentation is almost impossible on a drafting board.
  • Ability to plan projects better. Contractors know good pre-planning and follow through can be the key to success in today’s business. A good mechanical CAD system can check against structural and other trades, which makes coordination and planning routine. Ask any contractor what type of project they prefer, one with coordination drawings or one without. Almost every contractor prefers to work with coordination drawings.

    The reason is simple. Once the contractor steps onto the jobsite, the sooner he can complete the project, the more profit he makes.

    Coordination drawings, pre-planning and easy fabrication of spool pieces reduce the surprises that can occur on a jobsite. As you know, surprises almost always mean delays. Delays cost money. Eliminating delays means less installation time at the site.

  • Ability to submit quality as-built drawings at the end of a job. Many contractors today are still doing as-built drawings in red pen or pencil at the end of a project. Since CAD coordination drawings are easy to update, you can save many hours at the end of a project by not having to prepare marked-up as-built drawings. You can move more quickly to the next project.

    Another benefit of a computerized system is the minimal amount of storage required for blueprints once the project is complete. You won’t have to archive 100 pounds of paper blueprints for each job. Blueprints for a typical project fit on 10-15 diskettes or one tape drive. You can forward disks, not heavy pounds of paper, to the general contractor. Storing drawings on diskette also eliminates long-term wear and tear that occurs with paper drawings. What’s Right: Once you agree you need a CAD system, it’s important to find the one that’s right for your company and the way you want to do business. First you should know that there are two types of CAD products on the market: two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Two-dimensional CAD systems basically provide lines on a page. The drawings from 2-D are very much like the drawings you get now from manual drawings.

    Three-dimensional CAD systems use a “model” approach. The drawings model the way the system will look in the real world. You choose the plumbing and piping equipment as you do the drawing on the computer. The model shows the true width and depth of steel beam, lighting, ducts or plumbing and piping systems. You can rotate this model to see it from any angle. It isn’t just lines on a screen. This allows you to make sure your work fits within a true 3-D environment. It’s also easier to see what design changes look like when modeled on the 3-D schematics.

    One CAD user says his system makes it “easier to visualize complex structures” when you can see the true width and depth of items on the screen.

    A second consideration when purchasing a CAD system is to get one that is designed specially for mechanical contractors. There are many different types of CAD systems. Some are trade-specific, while some are generic engineering.

    A system designed specifically for the mechanical trade has pre-loaded piping supplier and industry standards catalogs that make it easy for you to choose the items to add to the drawing. The system uses these items to create the spool sheets for fabrication.

    The third consideration is whether the mechanical CAD system has the ability to link to other applications. These applications include estimating systems and project management systems. By automating as much of your business as possible, you make your staff more efficient and better able to bid more jobs more accurately.

    Linking to estimating software gives you the ability to create accurate estimates faster. You can set up the estimating software to figure fabrication and installation labor costs to suit how you do business. Automating this process also saves you time figuring the cost of labor and materials by hand.