Technology is finally catching up with the highly mobile construction workforce, offering wireless solutions that go beyond the "hot spot" and into the field. EVDO, offered by Verizon gives fast wireless broadband access (3G) without the need for a WiFi hot spot and Intel Corporation is also promising to "unwire" entire communities and cities with Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or WiMax.
Wireless Internet offers many new opportunities for contractors who are always on the go. The most popular may be keeping up with job costs. Imagine opening your laptop anywhere and successfully using your Internet browser to keep up with on-site documentation. Imagine comparing your budget with the labor and materials you've already used, in real time. Web-based software with a monthly user fee could offer smaller contractors the ability to link the office to the field.
"Software as a service (SAS) is going to become more and more popular. We're going to see more solutions deployed through the web," says Norman Wendl, president and founder of Corecon Technologies, Inc., who believes the new wireless technologies will make web-based SAS a more and more attractive solution for contractors.
Wendl is a civil engineer who worked with three of the larger ENR 400 companies, including McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., Shea-Kiewit-Kenny JV and Tudor-Saliba-Perini JV. As an engineer, Wendl noticed the pains it took to recode information by hand from the original estimate to the general accounting for job costing. The project management team, who mostly managed from the field, were also in need of access to cost control tools that were part of the accounting application.
In 1999, Wendl used his industry expertise to start Corecon Technologies, Inc. to develop software for the architect, engineer and construction (AEC) industry. The company's mission is creating project-estimating tools that are tightly integrated with project management. Last February, Corecon released its fourth version of software with the web-based Corecon 4.0. Using the previous Corecon 3.0, Wendl says the software was rebuilt from the ground up using the Microsoft.net platform. The new version is fully automated, transferring data from one stage of a project to the next with the click of a mouse, and offers customized solutions for general contractors, subcontractors, homebuilders, remodelers, and architects and engineers.
"Our Estimating and Project Management (PM) wizard is a good example of how we've automated things," says Wendl of the new web-based software. "The Estimating and PM Wizard will take an estimate and automatically create the job cost codes, create the contract, depending on the contract type, equate the schedule values, and set the budget — all with one click." Wendl claims there is no software product in the industry that is this fully integrated and automated.
Larger organizations can take advantage of Corecon 4.0's team-based estimating features. Using the web, estimators in different offices can collaborate on one job.
"We have built-in collaboration, no matter what the size, small medium or large," says Wendl. It can also enable owners, architects, engineers, and subcontractors to collaborate on documents using a secure project website.
Corecon's estimating system creates detailed line-item estimates using industry databases, like RSMeans. "We can not only document inclusions, exclusions, clarifications, we can create a bidder list where we can create a general invite," says Wendl. Bid invitations can be automatically generated and sent to subcontractors and suppliers via e-mail or fax. "When we send an e-mail with a bidder invite, there's a link with a security code just for that estimate. The bidder can come in remotely and update his pricing, without seeing his competitors. We can also have the capability to lock bids. So, we have taken the whole bid invitation process to the next level. The estimator can see those bids and can decide what should be the price for his proposal to that customer."
Once the bid has been awarded, Corecon can automatically turn an estimate into a prime contract, and estimate line items into subcontracts and purchase orders. With Corecon's document control features a contractor can track, send, create, and customize RFIs, submittal packages, meeting minutes, daily logs, and punchlists. Corecon customers can request new functionalities. "We can update the solution, and the following Monday morning, boom — they have a new report there, or they have some functionality that they asked for that would make the job easier."
Cost control features on the Project Management side of Corecon are the most popular of its services. "The project manager is the one who is going to be evaluated on how a job went," explains Wendl. "His team is often the one reviewing, preparing application for payments or prime invoices on behalf of the customer or owner, preparing change orders, and reviewing sub invoices. He needs tools to manage the job, and then tools to transfer those records to the accounting package.
"There is a trend in the industry to get the job costing back into the PM solution. In the past, there's been a tendency to have job costing built inside the accounting package, whereas today, there's a trend where the job costing functionality is in the PM tool. I view our job costing capabilities as very strong. In terms of our contract administration module, we can have multiple prime contracts — let's say I'm building a building and that's phase 1. I can have a prime contract for that. Let's say later on there's phase 2, a parking structure. I can do a second prime contract and analyze that for the entire project. So the project is the overall building and parking structure, but we can do job costing at the project level, at the prime contract level, then one layer down below, at the cost code level."
Using Corecon, budgets can be tracked four different ways: revenue budgets; material, labor, equipment, sub, and other (MLESO) cost budgets; labor hour budgets; and equipment hour budgets. The estimating and PM wizards in Corecon can automatically set up a tracking and comparison of the budget estimates against the actual costs. "We're very thorough about job costing, and if you look at that, for the kind of functionality and value proposition for $60 per user per month, it is unbelievable what we offer to the customer."
Job costing and Project Management functions can also be transferred to a company's accounting package using utilities that integrate information from Corecon. "As a company we are experts in terms of integration," says Wendl. "CoreconLink products integrate with Microsoft Project, Microsoft Outlook, and small business accounting like QuickBooks or Microsoft Small Business Accounting 2006." Wendl says announcements are coming in the near future on some mid-tier accounting packages that will be integrated with CoreconLink products.
"In our business, managing your labor costs is paramount," says Doug Jackson of Bass Commercial Concrete, Little Rock, Ark. Bass Commercial is a medium-sized contractor that specializes in slabs and foundation walls, curb and gutter, sidewalks, and concrete paving. Jackson says Corecon was a good solution for tracking job costs. The company is growing, and Jackson hopes to get into concrete superstructure eventually.
"We're using Corecon for job costing," says Jackson. "Basically all of the cost of the company goes through Corecon and we link over to Quickbooks."
Jackson says that he's been able to save money on monthly fees by switching from a payroll service to a combination of Corecon linked with Quickbooks. But those savings are small compared to the cost savings benefits of using Corecon for project management. "With Corecon, we have almost real time cost information daily. So, when you have an item of work on the job that's going south on you, you can find out about it in a hurry, as opposed to not finding out about it until you've already lost the money. That's the secret of the whole thing, is to know your costs almost instantly."
Bass concrete has not transitioned to the Corecon estimating system yet, but plans to do so in the future. "If we were a general contractor, we'd probably work towards that more quickly, but, being a subcontractor, we're very labor intensive, so most of our bids are concrete material, reinforcing and some other miscellaneous materials. We're not as heavily weighted in taking bid prices as a general contractor would be."
Though Bass Commercial is not utilizing all of the features of Corecon yet, he says that the good budget-to-actual information available from the software is well worth the service fee. "It helps us watch, on concrete material, for example, and see if we're running over or under, etc. Some materials are fixed. You know what you're going to buy for the job. Some materials are variable, and you have an estimate, say of how much concrete you're going to use, but you don't really know until you're through.
"All of these functions, using the estimating system, using purchase orders, the great document control center in Corecon, all of those things are very, very useful, but they're not the meat in the coconut. The meat in the coconut is controlling your labor and controlling your costs."