Security Estimating Software Review

Author: Ethan Ace, Published on Dec 14, 2011

Responding to RFPs can be time consuming and error prone. With FRPs often being hundreds of pages long and bids of hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving things or rushing to get the response out can result in expensive problems. In this note, we examine a software package designed to enhance the security estimating process.

On Center Software's On-Screen Takeoff is an application intended to reduce time required to estimate projects by performing common tasks digitally and automatically. 

Overview

On-Screen Takeoff has several potential benefits for integrators who regularly bid projects.

  • Device Auto-Count
  • Digital Takeoffs
  • Linear Measurements

Those predominantly performing design/build work would likely find it less useful. We'll look at each of these three features below.

Auto-Count

Perhaps the most time consuming part of bidding any project is counting the symbols on each drawing. On-Screen Takeoff aims to expedite this process through its auto-count feature, demonstrated in this video:

As demonstrated, the user highlights the selected symbol, which is then highlighted with a user-selected color to assure it's been counted, and automatically tallied. This need not be restricted only to symbols, but instances of text may be counted as well, to count drawing notations, for example, such as different styles of camera. Tallies of all symbols may be automatically saved on the digital copy of each plan, for quick reference, and they are also saved to a separate tally sheet, which may be exported to various formats, most commonly Excel.

Once symbols are counted, the user is presented with a summary screen showing each instance, so they may glance at each and remove any false positives. Sensitivity is adjustable, to account for blurry or low-quality copies of plans.

Digital Takeoffs

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Even if auto-count is undesirable, or if user preference is to count manually, OST may still save time. While there are still many bid documents which are only available as paper copies, digital distribution from online plan rooms or FTP sites has become much more common. OST can import multiple formats, such as PDF or TIFF, and loads each set of drawings as a project, keeping all bid information together.

Normally, contractors would need to either plot out a full set of drawings, or pay to have them plotted by a print shop. With plotters costing thousands of dollars, printing in-house may not be an option for some integrators. Print shop fees also add up, sometimes running up to a few dollars per page. Performing take off work digitally avoids both of these fees, allowing the contractor to spend money printing a set of drawings for installation only if a project is won. 

Linear Measurements

The final point security integrators may be interested in are OST's measurement capabilities. While these are often used for measurement of walls or floor/ceiling areas in construction trades, they may also be used to measure cable and conduit lengths, by clicking the start and end points, along with any bends taken in the run. Assuming the scale is set properly, measuring this way is likely quicker and more accurate than using a scale rule or measuring wheel on each sheet.

Cost

On-Screen Takeoff is not inexpensive.  A single-user license is $2,500, with a $375 annual maintenance contract required for updates. The question is whether it will pay for itself in labor savings over time. Assuming an estimator costs about $50/hour, the software will need to save 50 man hours in order to pay for the base license, and an additional 7.5 hours per year to offset the maintenance contract. These costs may be further offset by savings on plotter paper and ink, or print shop fees, if the integrator does not have a plotter in-house.

First-Hand Experience

My experience with On-Screen Takeoff was mostly favorable. The most-used feature was auto-count, which was surprisingly accurate. It took an estimator a few days to test and tweak until he knew what sensitivity to use for best accuracy, and to build symbol libraries. However, once it was set, it likely cut count time by more than 50%. Full sets of plans for large projects could be counted and checked in 1-2 days, instead of week, since the estimator was then spot-checking the machine's work. Spot-checking previously took a second engineer's time, to ensure accuracy. OST also assisted with documentation. Since no paper copies of plans or count sheets were required, there was less chance of documentation being lost as a project progressed, with counts saved directly onto each plan, for quicker reference.

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