Automated take-off vs. digital take-off - What’s the difference?

​​Intro to electrical estimating
Automated take-off vs. digital take-off - What’s the difference?

What’s the solution when you’re looking for a quicker way to count take-offs?

The old-fashioned way says that you get better at accurate manual counting with experience, but however you slice it, pen and paper is still a slow process. For this reason, many electrical estimators look for a software solution for take-offs.

However, once you start to look around, you notice there can be considerable differences in terms of price and software features. You will find some software packages that include digital take-off capabilities, while others (like Countfire) include an automated take-off feature.

An obvious question is, what’s the difference? What are you getting for your money and how might this make a difference to your overall productivity? Let’s take a closer look:

What is digital take-off software?

Counting take-offs is the process of quantifying all the various materials and components involved with completing an electrical project, before providing a cost estimate. When only paper drawings were available, estimators had to count on the drawing, usually highlighting then filling in a spreadsheet.

Now that most plans are in a digital format, working from a digital file offers advantages to estimators. For example, there is less paper involved or space required in order to complete the job. Another advantage is you can access digital take-off software to help you accurately count.

Be aware that with a digital take-off feature, it might not save you as much time as you had hoped. The mechanism by which digital take-off software works varies - some will claim to be “automated” but they really aren’t. They involve pointing and clicking at every symbol on the drawing, a process that often turns out to be slower than manually counting (and a recipe for RSI!)

Sometimes the companies that sell these software packages conflate the terms “digital” and “automated,” claiming to have an automated take-off solution. However, if you’re manually pointing and clicking, you can hardly call that automated! This is an important thing to be aware of when looking at software solutions, to ensure you don’t come away disappointed.

What is automated take-off software?

Automated take-off software works with digitised plans as well. It provides advantages similar to digital take-off software, such as not having to work with paper-based drawings. A truly automated software offers much more though, in that you don’t have to go through that manual “point and click” that digital take-off software involves.

True automated take-off software will automatically count the quantities for each symbol on your drawing. It will produce a report to show these quantities and should have a good checking feature, so that you can make sure everything was definitely counted.

Some software products that claim to have automated counting implement it so poorly that it really shouldn’t be called “automated.” The idea is that the software should save you time and improve your accuracy - it shouldn’t create extra, unnecessary headaches.

If you’re looking at different options for take-off software, the actual mechanism by which they count is important to check. We suggest that it’s more worthwhile finding a solution that is truly automated, otherwise you probably won’t get a lot in terms of efficiency gains.

Software pricing differences

When you’re examining the price differences between various software options, the ability to automatically count or not can be a major differentiator. Software that truly automatically counts has more technology behind it and tends to cost a bit more, but generally returns the investment in terms of speed and accuracy gains.

For example, Countfire is a truly automated take-off solution, but we’ve received some great feedback, allowing us to quantify potential results from using the tool. Common feedback is that it pays for itself. On average, companies who implemented Countfire were able to save an average of five days per month, per estimator. With the average rate of an estimator in the UK being £300 per day, that’s an average saving of £1500 per month.

This example only speaks to time savings. You can also look at how improved accuracy and less paper usage makes a mark. This is what you should expect from a solution that is truly automated - you should be getting your money’s worth.

The bottom line is, if you’re exploring a software solution, you’ve got to know exactly what it does, how that can help you, and what that will look like in terms of gains for the business. Sometimes pricing looks cheap, but the features don’t give you enough time or accuracy savings to justify going ahead. Sometimes the price appears to be expensive, but when you dive down to how it will make new efficiencies, it saves you money overall.

Extra questions you should ask

The idea of using software solutions is that they should make your process easier and more efficient, rather than adding in extra inefficiencies. For example, what happens if you have a very “busy” construction drawing with a lot of symbols and different features? Are you able to hide or otherwise control the background to make counting easier?

Secondly, how intuitive is the software? Let’s say your drawing has multiple symbols to count, but some of the symbols are shown sideways or upside-down - will the software understand that it is looking at the same symbol, just from a rotated perspective?

Thirdly, how easy is it to check the work of the software? No estimator should be “out of the loop,” a term commonly used when a pilot has autopilot engaged and has no idea where the aircraft is or how it is performing. By this same principle, estimators should know that the software has given them an accurate count. Checking features are important and should be easy for you to use.

Another key ingredient that will impact whether you’re better off with the software or not is the level of support offered. You can expect that you’ll need support at some point, and most people would like it as quickly as possible. This will vary between companies, although you also have to consider cost. Sometimes slower, or less responsive support is a characteristic you can expect from a cheaper solution. It costs money for the company to have actual humans at the ready to respond to queries! Find out what their service standards are for support.

Lastly, when you’re exploring automated take-off vs. digital take-off solutions, go into the exercise knowing what you want to achieve from implementing software. This will help you to devise a list of “must-haves” and sort through your options based on those that meet your requirements.

Final thoughts

There can be some marked differences between take-off software solutions and these often reflect in the cost of the product.

It is worth knowing the difference between digital take-off software and truly automated take-off software, as generally speaking, if you’re looking at software you’re looking for efficiency. Digital may still involve a lot of manual clicks, which often doesn’t save you a lot of time at all. Automated should mean that symbols are counted automatically, however some solutions that advertise an automated take-off feature are not very well implemented.

Importantly, check that you can view a demo and truly understand how the software works. If it’s not user-friendly, it will be difficult to implement, or maybe it is a simple interface, but doesn’t include all the features you need. Know what you need before you go shopping!