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Assemble Goes Back to the Future

Posted: August 8, 2017 | Project Management

By Don Henrich, COO, Assemble Systems

Do you remember Back to the Future? It’s the iconic movie trilogy in which Marty McFly and his crazy scientist friend, Doc Brown, use a flying DeLorean to time travel. There are a lot of takeaways from this film, but foremost is the idea that even the smallest action can have a great effect on the future. Regardless of how much time has passed, or what new trends and technologies have been embraced in the timeline of the future, there is always some residual effect – large or small – from past actions or processes that must be reconciled.

As the AEC industry continues to evolve and adopt new technology that can improve accuracy, efficiency, and cost, it’s paramount to remember that the most effective new solutions may be informed by past processes. This is especially true with estimating/takeoff. The estimation of how much material, labor, and equipment is required to complete a project decides the cost a construction firm bids to build it.

If the estimate (and, therefore, the bid) is too low, firms risk taking on a project that will not yield a profit. If they are too high, they could lose the job altogether. The first step of an estimate is the takeoff process, which requires immense attention to detail and highly accurate plans – but must also be finished in a timely manner. Because it dictates the entire project, the industry has been very particular about the best process to use when estimating, and can be skeptical when it comes to adopting new solutions. To solve this problem and figure out the best way produce an accurate estimate in a reasonable amount of time, Assemble Systems took a page out of Marty and Doc’s book – looking to the past to understand the future.

About 30 years ago, estimation was done by putting 2D plans on a desk and measuring and coloring them while building up the bill of quantities that reflected the design. This left a lot of room for error. And even when done correctly, it took weeks.

Some years later, a switch was made to electronic takeoff, using a paper drawing that was laid on a large format digitizer.

Soon after, takeoff was really digitized with PDFs of 2D plans being used in conjunction with a 2D takeoff solution and a Windows PC. The PDFs could be used to calculate the areas and perimeters on a drawing set to help quantify and price it.

Finally, about 15 years ago, BIM emerged, with 3D models promising to change the way takeoff was done, and defining the probable future of estimating. 3D models give a more in-depth view of the design intent, ensuring that clients and builders are on the same page. Moreover, when changes are issued, they can be updated in the model – yielding the modified quantities and estimates faster than ever was possible with 2D drawings and PDFs.

Despite the fact that BIM has been around for more than a decade and continually offers more comprehensive models and data, estimators have remained hesitant to adopt a 3D model approach over 2D. This is true for many reasons – including the concerns about the completeness of inventory in models, the belief that 2D details are more exact, and the feeling of loss of control over such an integral element to the process. With that, the future of estimating has languished along with the 2D method, which many considered to be more tried and true.

Looking at the core estimating methods seen over the past 30 years, a key trend stands out. There is no real aversion to automation or digitization, rather a preference for assessing a project with the flat mathematical plane provided by a 2D model. Most estimators claim they can just see it better. This is where the “Back to the Future” effect takes place: The most popular method of the past now affects how estimating is evolving today.

The folks at Assemble have discovered that the most effective way to help move estimating forward – combining accuracy and efficiency – is to use both the data made available using BIM and the 2D takeoff process. This means simply downloading the quantities from the 3D model to automatically populate your 2D takeoff wherever possible. As a result, this simplifies the overall process, saves you a huge amount of time and energy, and improves your competitive position.

Once the data is applied to the 2D takeoff sheet, estimators can add any items that may have been left out of the model, and use the standard 2D approach to verify the accuracy of the data. With that, 3D models return as the future of estimating, by augmenting a past preferred method.

Combining these two methods allows the building team the control over the estimation process to which they are accustomed – along with the benefits of 3D models. These benefits, such as better accuracy, automation, and simplicity, allow the estimators to spend more time thinking about the estimate and whether they have captured all the required elements to produce a reliable bid.

In the first film of the Back to the Future series, Marty’s time machine/DeLorean breaks down, stranding him in the year 1955. Using the resources available, Marty makes his way back to the future – his present year 1985. Similarly, by combining elements from past estimation methods with what is known as the future of the industry, construction teams can create more accurate and adaptable takeoffs – without compromising time or quality. This truly brings us back to the future and advances the art and science of Construction Management.

About the author: Don Henrich is Chief Operating Officer of Assemble Systems. He is responsible for strategy, marketing, sales, and customer success. Mr. Henrich was most recently head of Global Sales for Trimble Navigation’s General Contractor business, where he led a team of employees and partners marketing, selling, and supporting the Trimble Buildings portfolio. Mr. Henrich joined Trimble in 2012 via the acquisition of Vico Software, which he cofounded.