by Patrick Moody
November 2, 2011

It's true for just about every industry in existence: to remain competitive, indeed, to survive, you must stay knowledgeable about emerging technologies.

You must be willing to embrace them for no other reason than because you can never be sure if the other guy will gain an advantage over you by doing so.

While 3-D computer graphics have been standard operating practice in  medicine, aeronautics, entertainment and many other industries for years, the construction industry has been slow to recognize and implement the advantages of a third dimension on its estimating practices. Those enterprising contractors and vendors who have adopted 3-D technology have therefore given themselves an undeniable competitive edge with clients.

The construction estimating sector has come a long way from the days of pencil, paper and ruler. Computer spreadsheets, which initially seemed like an enormous leap ahead of that cumbersome manual method, were eventually replaced by semi-automated, graphic-oriented estimating technology. But even as computer-based estimating was becoming commonplace, the method was still in its infancy.

The Visual Assembly gave a tangible new dimension to the work of estimators, who could see a fundamental representation of their structure onscreen before a single nail had been hammered or an ounce of dirt had been moved. More significantly, clients could get a better idea of what their investment was going to look like. But, as static, simplistic line drawings that could be viewed only from limited perspectives, Visual Assemblies were still lacking. Isometric drawings were fine for drafters, but not terribly impressive to any clients you're trying to win over.

With the introduction of 3-D Visual Assemblies, developed by Sarasota, FL-based Quest Solutions, contractors were able to see a detailed, lifelike image of their structures. They were able to manipulate a Visual Assembly in a number of ways-tilting up and down, zooming in on and out from, rotating around and going inside a structure. By comparison, the spreadsheet looked barely more advanced than the pencil, paper and ruler method of estimating.

For the more ambitious estimating software users, though, the development of this 3-D Visual Assembly functionality was merely adequate; it was a stopgap for the introduction of something far more significant and valuable-the interactive 3-D Visual Assembly.

While there has always been a basic level of interactivity with the 3-D Visual Assembly, only the newest generation provides a real-time correlation between the list assembly and its graphical component. If an item is changed in the list assembly, that change is automatically reflected on the graphical representation.

Furthermore, a new "expanded" view option of the interactive 3-D Visual Assembly enables the estimator to see all the elements of a structure. By clicking an icon, the estimator can cause all of the structure's components to separate, allowing them to examine the components individually and from various perspectives, to ensure that no components are hidden.

Along with enhancements to the interactivity of 3-D Visual Assembly views, estimating programs have also improved the realism of their graphical representations. In other words, steel looks like steel, concrete looks like concrete, and wood has a natural wood grain texture. Although it could be argued that this feature is mainly aesthetic, there's no doubt that an eye-catching final bid presentation from a contractor can impress a client. Again, with so many potential competitors, a contractor is bolstered by any distinctive benefit.

Digital estimating technologies have done more than given estimators and their clients attractive pictures to look at they've made a momentous impact on estimating efficiency. Estimators can now complete jobs up to ten times faster than before. Better efficiency obviously makes for faster turnaround, increasing client satisfaction. It also frees the contractor up to pursue additional job opportunities.

Common architectural and 3-D modeling programs like AutoCAD, Revit and Graphisoft are beginning to have a tremendous impact on construction estimating. The synchronization of their databases with those of estimating programs enables contractors to take a 3-D model and import it-every door, every beam, every cost item-directly into an estimating program, saving significant time on takeoff.

Ultimately, estimators will no longer need to digitize blueprints, as estimates will be completely automated. That is not to say that estimators themselves are an endangered species. With the automation of many of the tasks they typically perform, estimators will shift their focus toward project management. Nor will the need to be competitive go away. Far from eliminating their jobs, automated estimating, with its extraordinary speed and ease of use, will give contractors the time to bid out more work than ever before.

Interactive 3-D will by no means be the last step in the evolution of the Visual Assembly. 4-D rendering, which will give the estimator the ability not only to tilt, zoom and rotate the view, but to move vertically through a structure, is already on the development horizon, and will provide contractors with yet another powerful differentiating factor over their competition.

Construction estimating technology will, paradoxically, continue to become more sophisticated in both design and functionality, even as its usage becomes simpler and more automated. Within a few years, interactive Visual Assemblies will be the industry standard, and clients will expect contractors to possess those capabilities. Some estimators use their trusted low-tech methods to this day, but the demands of a competitive industry will inevitably compel them to upgrade or move on.

 Construction Business Owner, March 2007