California`s PG&E Looks to Estimating Department for Efficiency
By James D. Black, Black & Gorman LLC
In the late 1980s, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) saw the writing on the wall. With more than 94,000 square miles of service territory, PG&E began to mobilize for the day when competition would inevitably come to the electric industry.
Traditionally, utilities tended to marginally overbuild outside plant facilities because the extra expense could be absorbed into the rate base. In a service territory with only one electricity provider, service installation turn-around time was not a critical profitability factor. But, faced with deregulation, PG&E recognized quick turnaround on new service orders as a hallmark of competitive customer service, and decided that costing out each job to the penny could result in enormous savings. High priority was given to revamping the company`s estimating system.
Estimating involves a variety of manual and automated tools that have a direct impact on cycle time and the bottom-line cost of materials. The traditional estimating process includes creating a drawing of the job, leafing through supplier`s manuals for parts and specs and creating a bill of materials, ordering a labor estimate from field crew coordinators, and developing a work print. Streamlining this process was a logical way to increase efficiency.
By 1990, PG&E had developed DOS-based computer software in-house to perform electric estimating tasks which accessed the company`s Construction Cost Information System (CCIS), an Oracle relational database. Built with proprietary tools available to developers at the time, PG&E soon began looking for an outside company to combine its in-house software design with other software tools to provide greater functionality. Because it had a significant number of legacy CAD seats installed using Hitachi CADCore, a CAD platform software distributed by Information + Graphics Systems (IGS) of Boulder, Colo., PG&E elected to partner with IGS to enhance its estimating software using CADCore as the graphics engine. The software, then called IGS Estimator, was linked to the CCIS using standard SQL linkages.
In 1990, PG&E and IGS rolled out nearly 400 seats of the new IGS Estimator software enterprise-wide. By 1992, the IGS Estimator development team had calculated productivity increases of between 18 and 37 percent through the use of the Estimator package.
In March of last year, to enable third-party application developers, IGS transferred IGS Estimator intellectual property rights to SophSys, Inc., (Lafayette, Colo.) in return for royalties on future sales. Realizing that the product would have to be made accessible to utilities operating on other platforms, SophSys completed the development efforts begun at IGS to port the software to AutoCAD, Windows 95 and NT to provide for greater speed, greater user acceptance and compatibility with other applications. In order to give the product a distinct identity, SophSys renamed the software Sherpa.
“Sherpa is the next step in automated estimating and distribution of engineering requirements for both central control and individual customization,” said Jerry Kennedy, SophSys president, who served as chief project manager during the development phase of IGS Estimator. For reasons of continuity and as an investment in an organization-wide software system, PG&E approved the roll out of the new version of Sherpa with 825 seats in late 1997.
Intelligence & Efficiency
TAG was originally a self-explanatory term that referred to a pallet in the warehouse yard containing a standard collection of hardware, such as wire and connectors, needed to do a common and recurring job, such as replacing a power pole following a car accident or installing a new service drop. There was literally a tag attached to each pallet with a number corresponding to a type of work order. In Sherpa, the TAG tool is a drawing template which creates a predefined construction configuration according to work order type corresponding to the pallet tag which can be used as-is or be quickly edited to conform to individual field situations.
Contrary to conventional wisdom which states that estimating tools should extract quantity information for estimates from graphic files, Sherpa generates the estimate from an “intelligent” ruleblock system. This means that, unlike most estimating programs which require that drawings be absolutely correct, the new estimating tool does not rely totally on the accuracy and scale of drawings. An estimator need only assign a value to a line in order to generate a cost for that particular component.
In a move that complements its upgraded estimating system, PG&E is currently standardizing all computer equipment, which requires that much of the organization`s software be upgraded to a Windows 95 environment. Simultaneously, following a thorough and lengthy selection process, AutoDesk`s AutoCAD has replaced CADCore as the company`s standard CAD tool to run in the new Windows environment. The new Sherpa product takes full advantage of the AutoCAD version r14 productivity tools. To help estimators access the needed data, SophSys recently completed an upgrade of PG&E`s Construction Component Inquiry System (CCIS). The CCIS was given a more intuitive user interface to facilitate data acquisition, improve accuracy and increase processing speed.
Anticipation at PG&E
At the PG&E San Ramone Training Center, trainer/estimators are looking forward to the roll out of Sherpa`s new release. The Windows user interface has dramatically reduced training time and allowed for rapid response when new estimators must be quickly added to the workforce during times of high growth and construction in PG&E`s territory. A trainee`s prior familiarity with Windows pull-down menus and task bars greatly simplifies the processing of job orders.
For instance, using menus, a trainee can quickly attach transformer and cable sizes to homes under construction in a new service territory based upon engineering “ruleblocks” that group logical selections according to standard CAD symbols. Once the “rules” for a particular service installation are established, the estimator can replicate, cookie-cutter style, the repetitive processes of the work at hand. The software also performs validity checks for continuity, load management, government regulations and safety.
To the delight of seasoned estimators, Sherpa has been found to be easily customizable to individual work habits and preferences. Much like the option in Microsoft Word to use an existing letter and write over it rather than create a new document and format it again, estimators can increase their speed by using TAG Tools, which replicate recurring scenarios. “You have a street intersection, a pole and a transformer. This same basic sketch appears several hundred times a month. All you do is drop in the actual location, pole size and transformer type and you`re done,” said Lynn Jackson, an estimator/trainer at PG&E. “The copying and editing functions of Sherpa allow us to automate redundant steps and to edit only what is necessary to conform to anomalies.” Certain jobs will continue to be unique to terrain, environment, aesthetic considerations and geo-political boundaries. To handle these ever-changing situations, PG&E`s estimators have begun to specialize in certain types of non-repetitive work, like “Rule 20” jobs, in which overhead service is converted to underground service. According to David Depasquale, technical analyst and a member of the original team of IGS Estimator designers, the estimating tool`s ability to apply ruleblocks quickly to field drawings has saved countless hours of estimating time.
Charles R. (Randy) Evans, an engineering analyst who works with PG&E`s service planning group, recaps the workflow process. “Eleven years ago, PG&E was using a non-CAD drawing package to estimate materials and monitor the work flow process for outside plant.
[Today], though we have to train the estimators through that entire process, we are really training them to do the engineering. Drawing is one piece of it, but putting the engineering calculations in is the critical part of it. The engineering process is a decision process. It`s about knowing how the new plant integrates with the rest of the distribution system. As for the intuitiveness, Sherpa`s Windows interface will really help.”
James Black is a founding partner in Black & Gorman L.L.C., a communications firm specializing in information technology. Black & Gorman L.L.C. focuses on Latin America and is creating the first annual Executive Conference on Integrated Information systems for Latin America (Conferencia Ejecutiva de Sistemas Integrados de Informacion, or CESII) to be held in Miami, March 25-27, 1998. Black is a well-known industry writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.