State of the Electrical Estimating Industry: Executive Roundtable


ERP Analyst, Software Advice

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with the CEOs from four of the leading electrical estimating software companies on the market today: ConEst, Accubid McCormick Estimating Systems, and Vision InfoSoft. I wanted to hear from the people closest to the pulse of electrical estimating where the industry is heading, trends shaping the current climate and software’s impact going forward.

Before we dive into the details, let’s briefly meet our panel of executives.

George Hague, President and CEO of ConEst
With over 50 years in the electrical industry, George Hague brings deep knowledge and experience to the electrical estimating industry. Prior to launching ConEst, Hague was the President and owner of East Coast Estimators, Inc., which provided sub-contract electrical estimating services in the New England area. Hague has spent the last 20 years running ConEst.

Giovanni Marcelli, Founder and CEO of Accubid
Giovanni Marcelli has been involved in developing electrical estimating systems and educational programs for contractors for more than 20 years. Mr. Marcelli earned a degree in Electrical Engineering from Italy and ran his own electrical estimating business for 14 years in Canada. Mr. Marcelli is a frequent presenter at electrical estimating conferences.

Todd McCormick, President of McCormick Systems
Todd McCormick has been involved in the electrical industry, in one way or another, his entire life. Mr. McCormick has worked as an electrician, estimator, and project manager. Today, he is President of McCormick Systems which he took over for his father, Jack McCormick. Since taking over, McCormick Systems has expanded into plumbing, piping, and mechanical.

Brian Hoffelder, Co-Founder of Vision InfoSoft
Brian Hoffelder manages software development and training for over 12,000 electrical and plumbing contractors using Vision InfoSoft products. He is one of the co-founders of Vision InfoSoft and has over 30 years of combined experience working for and with electrical and plumbing contractors and developing estimating, billing, and pricing software.

Q: What are the current trends that are shaping the electrical estimating industry?

Hague: I believe image recognition software is emerging as the most beneficial technology for estimators right now. Image recognition can save estimators considerable time and effort. Meanwhile, it greatly reduces the cost by removing the need to print drawings. It provides the ability to automatically count devices off a drawing like estimators did off paper drawings, and it does it in a fraction of the time. Further innovation in this area has led to pairing the symbol or device to estimating databases to generate a faster, more accurate takeoff process.

Marcelli: The building information modeling (BIM) concept is impacting the electrical estimating and construction industry as a whole. BIM has the potential to allow the industry to create a digital model that will clearly define the scope and content of work. Once a model is built in the software, we can go into the building process with everything that we need to know. This will reduce changes, create a more collaborative work environment and save time and money. Unfortunately, this technology is at its infancy, and contractors are still learning the BIM process.

McCormick: From what we’re seeing, estimators want bids that are fast and professional, and they need software to help give their bids and company that professional image. The other big thing is having the digital takeoff that brings in a PDF or a TIF to mark it on a screen instead of just using paper reports. In terms of BIM, we’re seeing a lot of contractors use BIM. However, we’re not really seeing it too much in the electrical estimating end of the business. When it comes to executing change orders and things of that nature, that’s where the BIM model is getting used most. I think it will take some time before BIM becomes a viable technology for estimators.

Hoffelder: In the current competitive market, our customers are estimating more jobs and cutting their margins more than ever before. As a result, we see a continued demand for software that will make estimating more efficient and accurate. The most significant trend we have seen is for on-screen takeoff capabilities to automate the estimating process. When plans are transmitted electronically, there is no cost or delay in having prints produced and delivered; a job can be downloaded and reviewed instantly and if the job looks viable, an estimator can immediately start with takeoff.

Q: From your perspective, where do you see the electrical estimating industry heading in the future?

Hague: Estimators today are expected to accomplish what it used to take two or three estimators to do, and in a fraction of the time. Today’s complex bidding requirements are also creating more challenges for the estimator. Detailed breakdowns are required, and the need to change the scope of the project and price quickly and accurately during the estimating process is a common occurrence. Software that can make decisions for the estimator will make the estimator faster and more consistent in the bidding process, but also more competitive, is the future.

Marcelli: Estimators used to go through pages and pages of paper to scale, count and mark up drawings to do an estimate. Today, we have software that allows the contractor to view PDF drawings on the computer screen to mark, count and automate the count, which saves time and keeps the information at your fingertips. The speed of technology adoption in the industry has really surprised me. This leads me to believe that in the future, estimators will be more receptive to digital information and be more willing to the learn new skills required to work within a BIM world.

McCormick: A lot of what we’re hearing is that estimators want integration with other software. Companies want their estimating software to integrate with the software that they’re already using for accounting or project management – and eventually there will be a need for integration with BIM programs. Of course, we offer our own modules for things like project management. But customers want integration to the products that they are already using, and there isn’t much of that out there right now.

Hoffelder: I think the biggest influence on change will be the rapid development of technology that can improve the estimator’s process. As with many jobs, estimators are often expected to produce more with fewer resources. The Internet has put product and pricing information at our instant access and also makes it possible to find and review jobs with a few clicks. Technology will provide untold benefits now and in the future.

Q: Are you seeing any increased interest in software as a service (SaaS) from electrical contractors? Why or why not?

Hague: There has definitely been a gaining interest in software as a service. With electrical contractors in general, however, there has been some reluctance to embrace this technology because of concerns over company security and potential liabilities. But the SaaS model will play a vital role in the future as social media and the convenience of communicating and collaborating with project teams makes electrical contractors more efficient and effective.

Marcelli: For a majority of the contractors, SaaS is not going to be feasible for two reasons. First, estimating is time sensitive. Estimators are worried they might lose connectivity to the software and miss out on a make-or-break job estimate. Secondly, some contractors are fearful of having their data reside somewhere that they cannot keep under lock and key. These two roadblocks lead me to believe that for the next many years, we’re not going to see much SaaS in electrical estimating. However, certain areas, such as project management, are open to and currently using SaaS.

McCormick: It’s something that we are watching for and when the industry shifts that way, we’ll definitely jump and have something for that. However, we aren’t seeing much adoption or desire among estimators for SaaS. There is a worry that the Internet connection and cloud service is not reliable enough. If an estimator doesn’t have access to their software at the time that they have to submit a huge bid, then they may miss out on a bid that can make or break their company.

Hoffelder: We see some interest from our customers in SaaS, and we are listening closely to what functionality would be useful in an online service. Reliability and security are definitely concerns that will need to be addressed before customers consider switching from a desktop environment. As cloud computing becomes more prevalent in other areas of our lives, contractors will also see the benefit of having estimating software available from anywhere, anytime. With the capabilities now built into mobile devices, people will not want to be tied to a desk to do their work.

Q: What innovations do you think have had a significant impact in electrical estimating over the last decade?

Hague: The electrical contracting industry was built on traditional methods with products and building construction that did not change for years. But with new technology innovations, the industry is much different today. The ability for a contractor to adapt and embrace change in software is key. Online, instant access and collaboration continues to be the overall innovation and benefit to electrical contractors as whole. Contractors are now able to process more information faster to meet the needs of the electrical estimator.

Marcelli: One innovation I’ve found extremely useful are the GPS technologies. A GPS station has the ability to digitize an entire room to create a model that will tell you, with an exactness of 0.5 cm, the sizes of all the components and the distances between all the components in the room. That’s extremely helpful to prefabricate anything that’s needed in that room. It has brought us to a digital age and taken us from a time in which we used to measure everything with a measuring tape and the accuracy was nowhere near what digital tools can achieve.

McCormick: The biggest thing I’ve seen is the transfer from paper takeoffs to digital takeoffs. Computer-aided design (CAD) estimating and digital takeoffs have really been the big jumps in the last ten years. A CAD drawing or CAD file can actually tell estimators the exact amount of devices needed and the pipe and wire lengths instantly because there are actual blocks / symbols behind the drawings. If you get a PDF or a TIF drawing, there’s no additional information that comes with the plan. What CAD does is add a layer of intelligence to the estimating program and save the estimator a huge amount of time. CAD file formats are by far the quickest and most accurate.

Hoffelder: Recently, the increase in electronic drawings has had a significant impact on how quickly information is transmitted and how quickly an estimate can be prepared. The improvements in on-screen takeoff programs (enabling them to automatically recognize and count items) have been a huge step toward making the process far less labor intensive and more accurate. Most importantly, the pervasive adoption of high-speed Internet has made the largest impact on electrical estimating. Downloading jobs is now instantaneous. Furthermore, new software versions and pricing changes can be downloaded electronically while software training can be done without the cost or time of face-to-face interaction.

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