In 1937, Walt Disney Studios released its first fully animated feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and in doing so, pioneered a new form of family entertainment. The film was produced over the course of three years using 250,000 drawings all done by hand on paper. Fast forward 60 years and many technology innovations later, and the movie “Toy Story” made history as the first feature film made entirely with computer-generated imagery (CGI).

The creation of animated films has evolved from a largely manual page-by-page, painstakingly long process to a more efficient digitized process. The estimating world has undergone a similar evolution over the last 30-plus years. Initially, all estimating work was done via paper and pencil, but as technology has evolved, it can now be done almost exclusively electronically with computer-based tools that automatically calculate the measurements and include specific product data that is more accurate and easier to access. Let’s take a closer look at how the estimating and takeoff processes have evolved. 

Traditionally, estimators have completed takeoff by manually marking up paper plans and translating those lengths and quantities into an estimate. This traditional method of manual, paper-based takeoff is inefficient, time consuming and difficult to maintain as businesses grow. Some estimators have transitioned to using Excel spreadsheets and plugging information in using digitizers or other measurement tools. However, this approach still comes with its own set of limitations. For example, a spreadsheet doesn’t provide a repeatable and standardized process to create your estimates; this lack of consistency can hurt your company’s competitive advantage, and also put you at risk of trying to interpret someone else’s estimate should the original estimator choose to leave the company. On projects where there are multiple estimators involved, the chances for errors or missed changes only heightens.

Furthermore, if and when last minute changes are requested, the estimator must again manually go through each page of drawings to find what has changed and takeoff those items again, or in some scenarios, they may even have to repeat the entire takeoff process. This results in the loss of precious hours and putting your ability to meet deadlines at risk. These risks result in vulnerabilities in your estimating process that allow for greater chance of mistakes, lost productivity and ultimately lost profitability. 

Integrated graphical takeoff

Today’s software can provide an integrated, more automated digital approach to takeoff that enables estimators to generate takeoff straight from digital plan files, while translating measurements and item properties from the graphical takeoff application directly into the estimate. Estimators need only to choose the appropriate item to takeoff, then use their mouse to measure the length by tracing the digital plan on screen. The associated specification provides the item details, including material type, connections, hangers, risers, insulation, etc. It can also generate fittings included in a run based on the relationship between points that are touched during the takeoff. This provides a consistent, repeatable and accurate approach to takeoff which can be up to 50% faster than traditional methods.

By leveraging a pricing content subscription, the software can even be automatically updated with pricing information directly from the manufacturers and suppliers, ensuring you’re using the most up-to-date items and pricing in your estimate. Moreover, value engineering capabilities offered by the software allow you to quickly change and compare different materials and specifications options without repeating takeoff, allowing estimators to see the associated cost/labor differences to give the best options to your potential client.

When confronted by a last minute change, the program can also highlight the differences between the bid set of original drawings and that of the revised drawings. This helps the estimator to quickly and easily make changes to their estimate to reflect the revisions without the tedious task of manually comparing and identifying changes.


The move to the cloud

At the forefront of the minds of many engineers today is the next step in the estimator’s technology evolution: Cloud estimating and takeoff solutions that enable plumbing and mechanical engineers to access their estimates, takeoff and pricing information anytime, anywhere. Cloud takeoff solutions allow for multiple estimators to access and collaborate on the same set of drawings with access to the same items and assemblies, providing one single source of truth for estimating teams. Another driving factor in the adoption of cloud technologies is the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced companies to rethink the way they do things. As engineers were dealing with stay-at-home orders, the ability to work and collaborate remotely was of utmost importance. By using cloud technology, workers are able to retrieve an estimate electronically while at the bid table, job site or wherever they need access.

In addition, most cloud software solutions are offered as a subscription model, helping to eliminate large upfront investments and making it easier to manage cash flow. It also alleviates the pressure of maintaining costly server infrastructure, hardware and software maintenance and disaster recovery plans off of the company. Engineers can use cloud estimating to streamline their processes, collaborate with remote workers and improve the accuracy of their data for faster, more competitive estimates. 

A model-based approach

The latest advancement in estimating is a model-based approach, in which the model is leveraged to generate an estimate.

With model-based estimating, the model and the estimate use the same source of managed content. Once a contractor receives or designs the model, they can make adjustments to the way they are going to build it directly in the model itself and use that information to produce an estimate with real material and labor costs, removing the need to strip blueprints. With this approach, estimators can easily make changes on the fly, deliver faster bids and take on more new work.

The industry is embarking on the next big transformation. Companies that invest in technology and use downtime to learn and adopt it will be both more nimble and more successful, allowing them to grow their business for the long term.

While any transition involves a learning curve, moving from a traditionally manual way of completing takeoff and estimating to a more digital, automated approach, can be a game changer. No matter where you are on the technology adoption curve, there are opportunities for your business to reduce risk, increase productivity and grow profitability. The key to a successful transition is to get buy-in and move everyone in the company to the same way of estimating so that the process can be more seamless and efficient.