Volume 47, Issue 3 - April 2008

SHELTER Special Section: Technology 

Technological Edge
Software Can Be Your Company’s Advantage
by Drew Vass assistant editor of Shelter magazine.

Today’s business climate requires companies to be constantly on the outlook for ways of increasing productivity. Staying competitive no longer means being first to market with products and services, but being able to produce more with less effort.

One way to stay ahead is by seeking out new software solutions—programs that can help your employees and company produce more and be more accurate, while preventing unwanted issues like lost product and unnecessary waste.

Dealers and distributors aren’t the only ones having to think progressively these days. Builders are facing the same challenges. Many are implementing software programs to streamline productivity, minimize jobsite waste or simply to gain a competitive advantage by wowing their clients with three-dimensional walk-throughs and highly customized plans.

Many of the software modules used by builders and dealers are capable of interfacing. When a client walks into his builder’s office with a set of drawings, some builders are capable of digitizing those plans. A takeoff or CAD file can save your estimators time by importing directly into your software program for pricing and order in many cases. This interoperability is something to consider when selecting your company’s software.

McGraw-Hill Construction’s Interoperability SmartMarket™ Report provides insight into the interoperability of software applications and platforms serving the building community. The report found that interoperability costs add 3.1 percent to a typical project budget.

“Interoperability, from a purely technology-based viewpoint, allows collaborating firms to share electronic data between software applications,” explains Norbert W. Young, president of McGraw-Hill Construction. “The lack of seamless flow of information—or interoperability—is one of the primary factors holding the entire industry back from quantum leaps forward.”

The goal of the study was to assess the interoperability of software applications and platforms serving the building community based on responses from a representative sample of 295 architects, engineers, contractors and owners. The most frequently used interoperability software is two-dimensional CAD, scheduling software and Business Information Modeling (BIM). The study’s major findings indicate that software incompatibility is the largest obstacle to interoperability.

Blueprint to Finished Package
Many dealers have discovered an advantage in using software to automate framing systems and package designs. Once a blueprint is imported, it can be altered and reworked as needed, with takeoff results available immediately for design and pricing options. Some engineered lumber providers offer their dealers proprietary software packages to automate the design and cutting processes. 

“I did a bit of homework to determine how this has impacted our operation and, by my estimate, it has made us nine times more efficient overall,” says John McGee, engineered lumber manager for 84 Lumber in Birmingham, Ala. “From the waste that’s eliminated, to the quickness and precision, it has impacted our business dramatically.”

McGee’s company implemented a program called iLevel® Stellar™ to aid in the fabrication process for its iLevel framing component products. Produced by Weyerhaeuser, this software allows its dealers to convert data from structural framing design software packages into electronic instructions that guide computer-controlled saws.

“We actually started using this system back in 2005,” McGee says. “I would say that it has more than paid for itself. Our customers have definitely noticed a difference and it has definitely increased our market share.”

When the framing carpenters receive one of McGee’s company’s packages, it’s as simple as painting by number. Each framing component is labeled and pre-cut to exact dimensions. As a result, there is no fall-off waste. 

“When they receive the product in the field, everything has been marked for the system and every cut, right down to the holes for an HVAC system, are done,” McGee explains. “And they’re perfect. The software does all of that. It prints and labels each piece.”

McGee says his company buys its engineered lumber in bulk and he imports his customers’ plans into a system. At the opposite end of a software integration stream is an electronic saw system capable of cutting raw framing materials into an exact and complete package. McGee says you can even tell the software in what order you would like materials loaded, so components are available in sequence and framers don’t have to unload an entire package, or dig through for the next item needed.

“We’ve been able to consolidate all of our raw product stock and cutting operations to one location,” says Zach Padalino, the Stellar software operator who works alongside McGee. “We used to make cuts with chainsaws. At that time, it came down to having our workers with a set of measurements and plans cutting and having to make decisions. With this system, all we need is someone removing and stacking the finished product more or less.”

Padalino says feedback from the field is positive. Not only are the framers happy, but the mechanical contractors say the pre-cut and drilled hole patterns for duct work and plumbing are perfect. There’s no waste on his jobsite since implementation and less on the builders.

Loads of Options
There are a number of software packages out there from which to choose, ranging from complete automation to basic estimating and design. Implementing these sorts of products could be the extra edge that your company and its customers need.

Here are a few options for you and your customers.

Customized Products Made Easy
Selling customized products requires a different approach. BuyDesign® is a comprehensive guided selling and configuration software solution developed to streamline the entire interest-to-order cycle for customized products. This program helps manufacturers and their dealers increase sales by becoming easy to do business with.

Software producer TDCI reports that implementation reduces administrative and sales engineering costs, lead times and order errors. BuyDesign includes applications for quoting and ordering with comprehensive support for multi-level sales channels; interest generation, with tools to capture end customers’ attention, imagination and business; requirements capture, with tools to make it easy for professional designers to specify products; and more.

BuyDesign can be deployed in a variety of ways—all with centralized control of data and Internet-based synchronization. www.tdci.com/buydesign

Communicate Visually
Running a successful business requires effective communication. But getting a point across and having everyone on the same page can sometimes be difficult. For this reason, the business environment relies heavily on graphics. But not everyone is an accomplished graphic artist.

SmartDraw is intended to help anyone create effective graphics easily. It allows users to produce flowcharts, organizational charts, project timelines, forms, graphs, scheduling calendars and even floor plans quickly and easily. It is designed to integrate with Microsoft Word®, Powerpoint®, Excel® or Wordperfect®. www.smartdraw.com

Fully Automated Framing
A 2006 study by the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies identified four operating practices that builders are using to improve construction efficiency: component preassembly, supplier installation of materials, better supply chain management and greater coordination with subcontractors. iLevel by Weyerhaeuser introduces iLevel™ NextPhase™ site solutions, a range of products, proprietary software and services that allow builders to walk into dealer locations with architectural plans and walk out with an integrated framing solution.

NextPhase™ site solutions offer building material dealers and fabricators proprietary design and fabrication software tools that are compatible with industry-leading specialized saws, material handling and component fabrication equipment. NextPhase™ is based on three levels of services, all dependent on dealer customer requirements:

Keep Everyone on the Same Page
AccuBuild has released a project management module for its construction software as a fully integrated component. This module delivers full-featured project management functionality with built-in workflow and document management capabilities.

AccuBuild Project Management allows users to manage all of the documentation associated with jobs from a single screen that can be sorted by any field. Task management is simplified with at-a-glance access to tasks that are due, overdue or require follow-up. In addition, an advanced Google™-like search function allows users to search all logs by keyword for fast retrieval of desired information.

Customizable forms within Project Management make it easy to create requests for information (RFIs), change order requests (CORs), change orders (COs), submittals, transmittals, fax coversheets, business letters, daily field reports, meeting minutes logs and closeout reports. 

Each customized form can be copied and modified as needed and quickly assigned to clients, vendors, architects, jobs or project managers. AccuBuild’s Project Management system also integrates with its Document Management System (ADMS). With ADMS, users can attach files, e-mail correspondence and scan documents directly to log entries such as RFIs, submittals and daily field reports. The integration with ADMS revolutionizes project management by creating a single, searchable database for all project-related documentation.  www.accu-build.com

Door Shop Configurator
WoodWare Systems, a software provider for door shops and millwork operations, provides a way to add profits and efficiency to pre-hung door production. Configured Order Entry, allowing for point-and-click selection of pictures and options for door units, window units and other products, is one of the new graphical modules now available from WoodWare. The company’s software is designed especially for companies that pre-hang doors and handle special order windows, doors and other millwork products. WoodWare manages inventory control, purchasing, production, accounting, quoting, order entry, warehouse management, dispatch and delivery, document management, internet quoting and ordering modules and more.

Company officials say its Var-I-Frame Configurator is a technology engine that allows door pre-hangers to handle their entire interior and exterior door lines with approximately four percent the number of records compared to bill of materials or kitting software. With WoodWare, no pre-defined bills of materials are required. The company reports that building material dealers and millwork distributors, especially those with window assembly operations or door shops, find this capability to be a great enhancement. Some even use WoodWare to run their door shops as stand alone operations and electronically link into their corporate point-of-sale solution. www.woodwaresystems.com 

Quickbooks Integration
Construction Management Software (CMS), a provider of construction estimating and takeoff technology, has earned QuickBooks Gold Developer status. The company reports that construction companies that use QuickBooks Pro, QuickBooks Premier, QuickBooks Enterprise or the Canadian editions of QuickBooks now can take advantage of integration with its ProEst estimating software.

A two-way interface between ProEst and QuickBooks allows users to transfer data back and forth. For example, estimates can automatically be created in QuickBooks using data from ProEst, while customer and vendor data in QuickBooks can be imported into ProEst. CMS reports that by using the programs together, contractors have the ability to estimate job costs with greater accuracy, track costs versus revenue in more detail and eliminate time and errors associated with duplicate data entry.  www.proest.com

Free Design and Specification Web Portal
In any project, the specification process involves not only creativity, but also a comprehensive evaluation of available building products. Various combinations have to be examined for adherence to technical specifications and design requirements. USG offers Design Studio, a new, fully accessible, interactive specification tool kit—for free. Design Studio provides architects and designers with advanced capabilities and information resources to design, compare, change, select and specify the right products and systems for interiors quickly and accurately. 

Existing and new online design and specification tools and other pertinent product information have been integrated, including Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools and data. These design and specification tools incorporate system and product specification data from USG, as well as the ability to compare products from other manufacturers. 

An intuitive interface makes it easy to navigate and understand and, company representatives say Design Studio incorporates the most extensive wall and ceiling CAD library and drawing tools in the industry. 

This online tool allows users to make changes, review them instantly and automatically document the results throughout the system.  www.usg.com

iConstruction
Who says iPhones or BlackBerry® devices aren’t rough and tough enough for the construction industry? If you use one of these devices, but frequently leave it in your truck for fear of damage, Otter Products LLC has got you covered. The company offers an OtterBox case for the iPhone, BlackBerry Pearl™ and BlackBerry Curve™ devices. These semi-rugged cases offer interaction with volume control, camera functions, touch-screens and phone functions, without destroying a device’s aesthetics. 

“Traditionally our OtterBox for iPod line has been completely rugged, but when the iPhone was introduced we wanted to offer an option that paralleled the look of the device while still providing protection from drops, dust and scratches,” says Curt Richardson, chief executive officer of Otter Products LLC. The iPhone Defender Series™ includes a hi-impact polycarbonate shell that snaps together to safeguard the device and a completely interactive, scratch-resistant polycarbonate membrane to protect screens. 

Three Donaldson Acoustic Vents protect front speaker, bottom speaker and microphone openings of the iPhone case to allow clear sound transmission while keeping out dust and moisture. Additionally, a silicone skin wraps over the shell to add grip and to absorb bumps and shock. These cases provide access to sync/charge and headphone jacks through a silicone plug and proximity sensors remain fully functional.

Leveraging Wireless Technology
To be productive in today’s construction industry, builders and contractors must find more efficient means with which to communicate with dealers, coordinate material shipments, manage their subs, meet tight deadlines and try to make a profit. 

Being organized and staying connected through wireless technology isn’t just a luxury; it’s a must for small- and medium-sized construction firms trying to bring the project in on time and on budget.  

“With comprehensive, seamlessly integrated wireless communication solutions for the construction industry, any size construction firm can be equipped with technology to stay productive and connected anytime, just about anywhere, no matter what the condition or jobsite location,” says Tom Shaughnessy, director of business marketing for Sprint. 

Shaughnessy offers construction professionals these ten tips to leverage wireless technologies to maximize productivity and coordinate a project on the run:

  1. Consider a GPS-enabled phone.
    Global Positioning System (GPS)-enabled phones are a useful and affordable way to find the quickest route to a jobsite. In addition, many of the phones your crews are using currently probably have GPS technology in them, so you may already have the ability to locate mobile workgroups such as crews, subcontractors and suppliers instantly.
  2. Your work environment is rugged; your phone should be, too.
    You can handle the harsh conditions of a construction site, but can your phone? Consider a phone that’s built to military specifications—originally designed for the military, but now commercialized. These units can handle extreme environmental conditions.
  3. Coordinate the crews, even when you’re away.
    Making multiple calls throughout the day to coordinate your team can be cumbersome. If you don’t already have a push-to-talk enabled phone, consider it. If you already have one, make sure you are using its most powerful features like group walkie-talkie or sending a quick voice or e-mail message to a group.
  4. Log employee jobs and hours wirelessly.
    By using advanced wireless time management tools, accounting, billing and payroll are simplified when workers can input job start and stop times directly into their phones. Supervisors can review and approve those hours right from their phones or desktops.
  5. Manage your resources and materials.
    For managing materials, many phones are able to work in conjunction with bar code scanners. By connecting a bar code scanner to a Bluetooth-enabled phone, you can scan and track any piece of equipment or material.
  6. Make your smart device a powerful tool.
    A Smartphone device can give you access to e-mails, schedules, contacts and more when you are out doing an inspection or completing a punch list.
  7. A camera phone is more useful than you may think.
    Aside from taking a snapshot of project development, this feature also allows you to document property damage or product failure on a site.
  8. Make almost any place a workplace.
    A mobile broadband connection card can allow you to access the Internet anywhere on your carrier’s mobile broadband network.
  9. Wireless tools can complete a job instantly.
    With credit card swipes that attach to mobile phones, you can collect payment when you are onsite and complete the job.
  10. Enable first responders to find you—fast. 
    Consider adding a feature that can connect you with first responders quickly and easily through the use of GPS technologies.

Shelter
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