Electrical contractors are making greater use of project management software to keep tabs on their projects

The construction industry has slowed down in many markets, and electrical contractors are searching for ways to save money and boost productivity. Many firms have decided now is the time to invest in the latest technology to better manage their business, stay ahead of the competition, and finish their projects on time and under budget.

Project management software, which can range from basic accounting modules to elaborate Internet- or server-based application service providers (ASPs), is helping contractors to control their costs on construction sites. Firms can review invoices online, share documents and images, and streamline paperwork. With more electrical contractors opening branch office locations and managing out-of-state projects, real-time communications have become a key to successful project management. Electrical executives can now review the progress of a project without ever leaving the home office, and team members in diverse geographic locations can share up-to-the-minute information.

Web-based, Web-enabled, or server-ASPs allow a company to store its data on a remote server without investing in the necessary infrastructure and information technology staff. The Construction Financial Management Association found that 29% of all contractors with an annual volume of more than $100 million are using project collaboration software. Three of the firms embracing this project management technology are Black & White Technologies, an $8 million Brookville, Ohio-based electrical contracting firm; Dick Corp., a $1 billion Pittsburgh-based general contractor; and Star Electric, a $12 to $15 million Pittsburgh-based electrical contractor.

Ohio firm streamlines communication and boosts productivity. Black & White Technologies was buried under piles of paperwork four years ago. Jobsite trailers weren't connected to the Internet, the office and field staff communicated via fax and phone, and employees had to sift through hundreds of paper invoices and packing slips. In 2000, the firm hired a new vice president whose first priority was to establish a new project management and accounting system. Kim Birdseye (Photo 1) investigated half a dozen software packages and purchased 12 user licenses for Forefront, a construction management software package from Dexter + Chaney. The software features 29 modules that can handle accounting, project management, equipment, materials, service, human resources, document imaging, and remote connectivity.

Black & White has 17 office and 56 field employees and specializes in design/build electrical layouts, engineered electrical designs, and the construction of office buildings, schools, and churches. Birdseye administers a user name and password to only the accounting staff, senior project managers, and foremen. Based on their job title and responsibilities, the employees can then access certain sections of the system from a laptop in a jobsite trailer, a desktop PC at the company headquarters, or from a computer in their home office. By using a feature called RemoteLink, users can communicate with the software package from any computer connected to the Internet.

Even in a remote jobsite location, project managers can easily retrieve requests for information (RFIs), requests for proposals (RFPs), and job cost sheets at the touch of a button. By scanning in the documents, the field staff can retrieve the necessary paperwork without rummaging through file cabinets. The document imaging capability of the product allows users to e-mail scans of the documents and store them electronically.

Birdseye says his company invested in six high-quality color scanners as well as a new server dedicated to accounting.

“We have a relatively high volume of paperwork that goes through our company so we really get our money's worth out of document imaging,” Birdseye says. “It only takes 30 seconds to scan in a piece of paper and e-mail it.”

Although the quality and clarity of the scanned documents are often as good as the originals, the company continues to retain and file hard copies.

“We haven't gotten to a point where we throw things away yet,” Birdseye says. “I think we are into document imaging enough that we believe in it, but we still maintain a rigorous paper file. We're a small company and we're 50-something years old. You can probably guess what our file storage looks like.”

The company plans to implement a two- or three-week retention period for documents that have been scanned. For now, however, the accounting staff prints a copy of every check, attaches the invoices to the copy, and staples the packing slips to the invoice.

Packing slips, which Birdseye calls the “lifeblood” of any small electrical contracting firm, can help firms track the materials purchased on a job. Rather than storing them in a file cabinet, project managers can now scan in the packing slips, compare them against the original invoices, and discover any discrepancies. The employees can also search for the slips by zeroing in on the phase of the job or the date of purchase.

Along with document imaging, Birdseye says his company also relies on the project management and job cost modules. Project managers and foremen can look at the actual dollar cost of the project at anytime to make sure they're staying on schedule and within budget.

“Having timely information is critical,” Birdseye says. “The job cost module does a wonderful job of keeping us momentarily current on how a job is doing cost-wise and profitability-wise. I think that gives us a tremendous efficiency when it comes to knowing how many hours you have left on the job.”

In the old accounting system, only six out of 80 employees had access to the accounting software, and project managers wouldn't have access to the budgetary information until weeks after they faxed their documentation to the main office. Birdseye says that the new software has helped his firm increase efficiency to the point where it was unnecessary to replace the four employees who have left the company since he started, even though they constituted half of his direct reports. He has also seen his company grow from a $5 million to $8 million electrical contracting firm in less than two years.

Pittsburgh general contractor and electrical contracting firm use software to manage projects.

Classrooms are now equipped with computers, but when Richard Wimer, a project director for the Dick Corp. first started in the construction industry, they had only just been invented. In the early days of the computer, the industry veteran remembers key punching cards to keep track of the job schedule. He said that sometimes it took hours or even days to discover a mistake.

“I was one of the first ones in our company who demanded a computer because we were on a remote job,” Wimer says.

Today the Dick Corp. uses three different software packages — Primavera's Expedition, P3e/c, and Constructware — to manage its projects. Expedition and Constructware are used primarily for tracking RFIs and changeorders, and P3e/c helps the contractor control the jobsite schedule. While electrical contractors don't have access to the general contractor's software system, the general contractor can scan in all of the subcontractors' documentation and store it in its system for future reference.

“Anything that isn't initiated in the Constructware system, we scan in and attach,” he says. “If I got a letter in from a contractor who faxed or e-mailed me, I could immediately drop it into the program.”

Wimer and his team are now using Constructware, an Internet-based ASP, to manage the construction of the new $424 million Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh (Photo 2). The hospital is being built on the site of the former St. Francis Hospital, where Dick Corp. recently constructed a 114,000 sq-ft addition. The construction team is incorporating the new addition into the medical campus, which will include two parking garages, a hospital, a medical office building, an east pavilion building, a plaza building, and a research facility. The construction team is using the central plant building for their administrative offices. Each member of the team has either a desktop or a laptop computer and can access the Internet through a DSL line. All of the documentation is stored off-site on the remote Constructware server.

In the past, the project management team would fax its documentation to the main office, which would then enter the information into Expedition, the server-based ASP. Because Constructware is accessible through the Internet, the construction team can now manage the software from their jobsite trailers and send the home office a monthly update.

“We do everything from soup to nuts,” Wimer says. “The home office can update their system, but it's totally managed on this jobsite. That's not typically what happens, but this is a big job.”

Dick Corp. executives can access the information on any of the firm's construction projects. The level of access is based on the employee's permissions, which are set within the system by Dick Corp.'s system administrator.

“If someone in the home office wanted to track the progress of a certain job and were at an executive level, they could log into the system,” he says. “If the jobsite is doing something that you're not aware of, you can discover it without having to make the personal contact through auditing.”

The general contractor is currently working with two other electrical contractors on the hospital project, but by the end of the job, there could be as many as 10 different contracts for electrical work, Wimer says.

Star Electric is one of the electrical contractors that has worked closely with Dick Corp. on the demolition prep work and construction of the garage for the hospital. While Dick Corp. is using Constructware, Star Electric is using Expedition to manage its documentation. David Pingree Sr., CEO of Star Electric, says his company has been using the server-based version of Expedition since 1996 to track its changeorders and RFIs. Before that time, the company used an Excel spreadsheet to manage its projects.

“Nothing falls through the cracks because everything is linked to those RFI transmittal numbers,” Pingree says. “We can double check the status of everything just by one report. You can change project managers halfway through and get up to speed very quickly because you have the information.”

While all of Star Electric's jobsite trailers are equipped with laptops and an Internet connection, the project managers don't input the information into the software. Instead, the supervisors fax the project documentation to the home office. Two secretaries then type the data into Expedition and distribute monthly RFI, changeorder, and schedule reports to the construction team. While the project managers all have access to Expedition, they log in primarily to check the status of a job rather than to manage the documentation.

Expedition's now available in an online version, and Dick Corp. is using it to manage other projects. Like Black & White Technologies, however, Dick Corp. still retains hard copies of its documents.

“I don't see us moving to paperless record keeping immediately, but maybe we can get there in the next five years,” Wimer says.

The future of remote project management.

Remote project management isn't limited to Black & White Technologies, Star Electric, or Dick Corp. Many construction firms are now using server- and Internet-based ASPs to manage their projects. Many times the owners and the general contractors mandate the use of a particular software package on a project, but other times, subcontractors can select the software that best meets their needs.

With the rapid advances in technology, project managers don't even have to be near a computer to access real-time information. Employees can now access job data with a hand-held device. A project manager can type the job number, phase, employee, and number of hours into the project management software on a PDA. At the end of the week, the supervisor can place the PDA in a cradle, sync the information, and transmit the data to the payroll department, which will then cut the checks. When the project manager is uploading the time information into the system, he or she can also ask the PDA to bring up a summary of the job. Birdseye says his company plans to stay on the cutting edge of the technology.

“We haven't gotten there yet, but we hope to move in that direction,” he says. “It's the wave of the future.”