Manage time, labor and material with estimating and project management software.

Software manufacturers are designing products that are easier to use and readily accessible via a Web-based database. Photo courtesy of Maxwell Systems.

Electronic technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives, whether it’s the iPhone you received for Father’s Day or the new back-office computer system you bought for your business. But unlike that iPhone, or Wii system, or 3-D television, the hardware and software you use for your business can increase the productivity of your office staff and your field technicians - and yourself.

When computerizing back-office systems became prevalent 15 to 20 years ago, it was the core financial systems such as accounting, payroll, accounts payable and billing that were the first targets, explainsBrad Mathews, vice president of marketing at Dexter + Chaney. The high volume of transactions in these areas made it critical for construction contractors to get themselves organized.

Once these areas of the business were computerized, contractors began to look at other areas to streamline costs - job costs, bidding/estimating, managing customer information, project management and communicating with techs in the field.

“The good news is that, for a significant impact, contractors don’t have to spend a lot of money to purchase what they need,” he says. “The big trend today is productivity; seeing where there is waste and eliminating it. Contractors may use two to three computer systems to make that process go.”

When you “smooth the workflow out,” Mathews adds, it makes it easier for each person, whether in the office or in the field, to solve customers’ problems correctly and in a timely manner. And satisfied customers are good for business.

“Today, I believe contractors are looking for an integrated software solution that seamlessly controls all phases of the business from estimating to project management,” saysRon King, vice president of mechanical business development at Accubid. “In other words, once an estimate is produced, the data is used in many other systems such as scheduling, document control, cost accounting, change orders, etc.”

Digital takeoffs are important in the ever-changing construction environment.

Bidding And Estimating

For plumbing and mechanical contractors, determining labor hours and costs when bidding a job is critical, saysKarl Rajotte, director of product management at Maxwell Systems.

One of the trends he sees with estimating software is the use of digital files. “Being able to do digital takeoffs is a huge benefit that people are just beginning to understand," he notes. "Changes come in all the time during the construction process, so having the ability to adjust your estimate digitally saves time and helps eliminate errors.”

Viewing blueprints online allows contractors to quickly make changes and prepare bids faster.

“With plans being e-mailed or borrowed on CDs more and more, a lot of the estimating software companies are developing ways to integrate these digital files into the estimation process,” explainsMike Postiglione, data, sales and marketing manager at FastEST. “Not only is the estimating process streamlined, the contractor saves time and money by not having to print out drawings for the bid process.”

Knowing how much to charge for material is vital in the bidding process, otherwise you could lose money as the project progresses. “Contractors need to keep on top of pricing,” saysTim Clover, president of Cloversoft. “Software that includes up-to-date pricing information can improve the accuracy of estimates.”

Project Management

After a contractor has won a bid, that’s when project management software comes into play.

“Because profit margins are tight, contractors need to make sure that jobs are going well and on schedule after they win that bid,” explainsCindy Whitner, Maxwell Systems product manager. “They need to be as accurate as possible.”

Coordination on the jobsite - with the general contractor, with the other trades, with other members in the crew - is important to stay on schedule. When is the crew needed on the jobsite? What materials need to be purchased and when?

Because things are moving quickly, it’s essential to keep project information in a central location. Most companies have Web-based systems that allow foremen and project managers to view daily jobsite information.

“Project management software used to be a ‘nice to have’ item,” saysJim Wenninger, CEO of WennSoft. “Now it’s a ‘must-have.’ Construction is an immediate world. People work on different schedules, so Web-based access is important. When companies cut off remote access to project data, it can cut down on productivity.”

The most accurate data you can receive on a job comes from the crew in the field, Rajotte notes. “It helps manage the job throughout, but it’s a chore for field techs to do it.”

That’s why software providers need to make the information collection process as simple as they can, Whitner adds, to balance what field techs are required to do and to get the right tools to them.

It also may require a change in company culture. Buy-in will come from field techs when senior management makes electronic reporting a priority. Hands-on training by software providers is a start to this process, but continued use on the job will get field techs used to the software.

“Trying out a new software program, or even starting to use software for something they previously did without software, can be intimidating,” Postiglione notes. “Being user-friendly is a crucial selling point in the software industry, especially as computers become more integral in contractors’ businesses.”

And savvy contractors have used the recent recession and resultant downtime to invest in the computer software they need to be productive once business starts to increase - as well as investing the time to train their office and field staff on getting the most out of new and existing software.

Computerization of estimating and project management processes results in contractors making better decisions, Wenninger says. With shrinking construction schedules and customers wanting more done with less money, coordination is vital.

“You can break down estimates and track them in the field,” he explains. “It keeps errors down (no more handwritten notes) and project managers better informed. It also helps companies generate better estimates. They don’t have to go back and validate the information; it’s in front of them digitally.”