Advanced roofing software increases productivity — or does it?

By Ray Smith, Applicad     /     Five years ago I wrote an article for this journal discussing how advanced roofing software increases productivity. Reading that story again, one finds it hard to see how these same tools could possibly be further improved and the same claim can still be made five years later. But I think we can and we wonder how this is possible?  

There are two parts to the story of increasing productivity using technology — first, to get the benefit of technology you must use it. Secondly, technology is constantly changing. So what worked well last year may work a lot better this year or indeed, another new technology may have surpassed last year’s technology.  The fact is we are in a world that is changing fast and most people are not adapting fast enough to these changes.

It is always dangerous to make sweeping generalizations, but a point to ponder is my observation of the overall slow uptake of technology in the roofing industry in the USA when compared with countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  I can see it because we do business in 42 countries and can draw direct comparisons. On a per capita basis, I have to say in our experience, the roofing industry in even a relatively poor country like Ghana (West Africa) has demonstrated greater readiness to adapt to technology than many US based roofing businesses. This may be the topic for discussion on another occasion.

One only gets the benefit of technology if it is used and used well. So let’s look at the technology available and figure out what the rest of the world is getting excited about.

In recent times we have seen huge improvements in software that assist contractors with determining roofing material quantities and preparing client proposals that are easier to use and more affordable.  

We also have seen an ‘explosion’ in the use of the internet as a network, not unlike other networking technology, bringing computers and the operators closer together.  To rattle the cage a little, may I say that some clever marketing guys got together and gave it a sexy name — “the Cloud” — but don’t be fooled, it is just another network.  OK, so we might use software on this new network in a different way by using it on a session based billing instead of owning it outright. But does it really matter?  Provided you have reliable and fast internet bandwidth, it probably doesn’t.

In any case, as a result, a complete roofing take-off system, which can significantly increase productivity, is available at a cost that continues to be insignificant compared to the salary of a quantity surveyor or estimator.

The Pain of Change
Five years ago, we looked at how all processes reach a point of diminishing returns which basically means no matter how hard you push, you do not get any significant productivity improvement from that process. Manual estimating processes for roofing are the same – you reach a point where you simply cannot reliably improve the number of quotations you can do in a day. With out changing the way you do things.

This is where one must consider the change to a technology based solution. To make the change however does have a small negative impact that is quantifiable and we might refer to this as “the pain of change” — things get worse before they get better. Management must understand this and budget for it as part of the cost of implementation of such systems. On the up side of course is the benefit of change or indeed, the pain of NOT changing.  

In the experience of the most users, productivity improvements of 4 or 5 times are quite usual.  Instead of doing 1 or 2 estimates a day, estimators can easily complete 5 or 6 a day (or even more) and with a complete job document trail available at the click of a mouse button. Indeed AppliCad, the Australian software developer has customers regularly completing 20 residential quotation packages each day!

Common features
Using the new breed of products is straight forward too. The user builds a 3D model of a roof by entering roof perimeter dimensions and roof pitch. From this information the software automatically determines the locations of hips, valleys and ridges and creates an accurate roof model.  Once the model is complete architectural features such as dormers, dutch gables etc may be added with just a couple of mouse clicks. If the estimator is using an image from a plan service, he or she simply displays it on the screen and traces the image using a mouse.  

New functions recently added to AppliCad software now provide the tools to digitize aerial images from various sources such as Bing, Google and Pictometry, thus saving a massive amount in time and travel for some re-roof situations.  These techniques must be qualified as the accuracy of the output is definitely a function of the quality of the images you use, but for budget pricing of roofing materials, they are amazingly useful and cost effective.  

Once the model of the roof is complete, the real advantages of this process become apparent — the in-built tools to check that the model is correct. Especially important if you use aerial images as the source material. The model may be viewed from any point of view (because it is a true 3D model of the roof) plus the model may be fully dimensioned automatically — overall measurements and up the slope measurements. These checks ensure that when the quotation is complete, you know it is correct.

Roof cover material and accessories are selected from a built-in database and a simulation of the application of these materials is completed, from which a detailed material list and quotation is produced. When entry is complete, the estimator can generate a variety of reports, work orders and drawings to suit the company’s needs.

A customizable database associates the pertinent details and accessories with each material type. This information is then used in selecting the material for a particular project. The software generates a detailed material list that gives the exact quantities of each panel length (for a metal roof) and tile quantities (determined by course) for a project and all accessories.  Material and labor costs are also calculated from this information.

Today’s advanced software can produce fully rendered, color specific 3D drawings showing exactly how the new roof will look. The user can easily check that the computer model is correct by viewing the roof at different angles.  This also makes a great sales presentation tool because it lets the client see the actual roof color on the model.

What is the pay-off for a roofing company?  
By using one of these software packages to speed up the production of estimates, an estimator can spend more time on those parts of the bidding process that cannot be helped by software, such as phoning to verify specs, doing field measurements, tracking jobs for feedback, etc.  He or she will also be able to bid more jobs with greater accuracy, which usually results in more successful bids and larger profits on completed jobs. Finally, custom designed report forms, full-color drawings and other computer-generated output contribute greatly to the company’s professional image.

Key features
When deciding which software to buy it is important to look for the following features:

Ease of use
An estimator will be more productive if the software is easy to learn with user friendly commands.  A complex interface can be confusing, especially for part-time users.  For power users, a well-organized interface will enhance productivity.  A comprehensive Help menu and a description of each icon will speed the learning process immensely.  

Automatic detailing
For the most part, programs available today have some sort of automatic detailing built in.  The user should be able to turn automatic detailing on or off as needed.  The estimator should easily be able to recognize what flashings and trim are applied to what areas simply by looking at the roof drawing.

Sheet/Panel layout
A sheet or panel placement drawing to help with roof installation should be produced automatically.  The layout should show the location of each panel with its length.  Also, the software should have the ability to shift the panels to exactly where the user wants the starting edge.  This aids the estimator tremendously in laying out the roofing sheets exactly the way the roof will be installed, thus increasing the accuracy of the company’s bids.  

More mature products in the market such as AppliCad’s Roof Wizard software also have advanced waste optimization capabilities to fine tune the amount of material supplied and to determine panel placement to reduce waste material by as much as 10%, depending upon panel profile and roof shape, with a color coded report to show how the off-cuts will be installed — see figure 2 below.   This unique capability even allows less experienced installers cope with a complicated roof job.        

Tiles by Course
The most accurate way to determine tile quantities is to lay them on the roof model course by course taking account of special tiles such as verge tiles, step tiles, half tiles etc. and generate a quantity list based on the actual requirement, not an approximation.  The more developed programs will provide this capability and the results will benefit your business by way of reduced waste and improved profits.

Company reputation and support
Look for a vendor that stresses support for the needs of both new and existing customers and has an active program of customer feedback.  

Customer interaction is the best way for developers to truly understand the needs of the users.  International companies such as AppliCad who export software to 28 countries bring enormous experience to the everyday problems experienced by your roofing company.  The software company should have no problem furnishing a list of half a dozen contented users of their software.  Can you reach the customer support staff during your normal business hours?  Sometimes support may be available through affiliate support centres in other countries, vastly extending service hours to you – almost 24/7 support.  

Are there regularly scheduled training classes that you may attend?  How often are the updates released and what do they cost?  These are just some of the questions potential buyers should be asking.  Downtime is very frustrating and may also be costly to your company.

New technology Works – so use it!
It is a fact that new technology does work and can bring productivity benefits to a roofing company.  Almost all successful businesses today use some form of computer based accounting or business management software and get the benefit of timely reports of profit and loss accounts and balance sheets.  

With roofing software being so cost effective, processes can be similarly automated with even greater productivity improvements, improved accuracy, reduced waste and much more professional presentation of quotations, purchase orders and roof drawings.  Quotations may now be completed in minutes instead of hours and a complete set of job documentation is created for the job file using tools that you are familiar with such as Microsoft Word and Excel.  

Implementing the right technology with the partnership of the right software vendor will ensure that your expectations are met and your business continues to grow in turnover and is more profitable on each job.

Author: Ray Smith is Managing Director of AppliCad USA Inc and has 40 years experience with CAD/CAM and business systems.  He has run his software development business targeting the roofing sector for 21 years and exports software from their head office in Australia to 43 countries.

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