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New software helps Duluth Builders Exchange broaden members’ reach
Photo: Don O’Connor
For a century, most contractors in our region primarily worked within an area defined by where project documents could be viewed. That limitation was eliminated by the advent of digitized information, and opportunities have further been broadened with the launch of second-generation software by the Duluth Builders Exchange.
The 112 -year-old group was created during an era when there was no easy way for developers and contractors to communicate about upcoming projects, said Don O’Connor, executive director.
“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was no way to make copies of building documents such as blueprints and specifications. The owner of a project would have a set of plans, along with the architect or engineer who drew them and maybe the bank that financed the project. All the contractors would have to go from architect to architect, engineer to engineer, bank to bank to find opportunities for bidding,” he explained. “Somebody suggested they put all the plans and projects in one place so all the contractors don’t have to run all over the country to view what’s being constructed.”
That system worked well for 100 years, with contractors packing the plan room. It’s still being used by a shrinking number of contractors, but most have adapted to the new remote access model, eliminating trips to personally review documents.
“We try to make life easier for both the plan issuers and our members,” O’Connor said. “Once we developed the online system, physical visits to plan rooms declined.”
Duluth Builders Exchange was among the pioneers nationally that developed the Internet-based system.
“We were the first in the Upper Midwest to offer an online plan room. We worked in conjunction with building exchanges in Cleveland and Texas to develop the first,” he said.
The new technology, however, didn’t eliminate the need for building exchanges. It was still necessary to staff a central office to receive plans, scan them if necessary and post them to the web, where they could be searched and retrieved by members.
The new ‘push’
Making building plans available 24/7 was a big improvement over the prior system, but it wasn’t the last. Improved software has allowed plan holders like Duluth Builders Exchange to add a wide array of new services. A key feature spares contractors the time needed to search for relevant projects. Now, they can fill out a profile that allows computers to match their specialties with projects. The new “push” process sends contractors real time notification about those relevant projects.
“You don’t even have to go out and look for information anymore. It’s just sent automatically to you,” O’Connor said. “It really has revolutionized how construction documents are distributed, viewed and followed.”
But the enhanced system doesn’t stop there. Unlike some other plan rooms, Duluth Builders Exchange breaks down plans page by page and indexes them page by page so members don’t have to wade through massive documents to find specific details. Whenever plans are updated, the new information also is transmitted automatically to interested companies.
Another feature allows contractors to see all of the available projects on a map and lets them to zoom in so they can better gauge the situation on the ground.
A further amenity is the integration of cost-estimating software into the system.
“Members know their cost per square foot. They can plug in their time and materials per hour and it will generate a bid estimate for them. It’s really a time-saving feature,” O’Connor said. “It removes some of the errors and second-guessing. It’s certainly more accurate in terms of count and quantity and time.”
Meanwhile, the latest software offers benefits for developers.
“We can tell the plan issuers which contractors actually intend to bid on their project. We can tell them how much the plan has been looked at, by whom and what the interest level is. We’ve also learned the best days to bid projects. It’s quite a good system,” O’Connor said.
With so much information available online, two new opportunities arise. Developers can receive bids from a wider variety of contractors. Similarly, contractors have the data that’s needed to bid on far-away projects that, in the past, they might not have learned about.
“As the digital age expands, so do opportunities. Our primary focus is about 150 miles from Duluth-Superior, but we do have members traveling out all over the country,” he said.
Although some of the exchange’s 400 members still use the Duluth plan room, those who prefer the online system have the option to receive training.
“When the first plan room went online, there was a high learning curve. People today have become more and more comfortable with the digital age, but we still offer training sessions on- and off-site. We want people to be comfortable with the system,” O’Connor said. “We also have powerful features in our system that people don’t even realize until they become familiar with the system. Once they see it, they say ‘wow – that’s got some power and some ability.’ ”
He anticipates the system will continue to offer additional features as software becomes more and more sophisticated. Quite likely, the next ones will add color to blueprints and offer 3-D modeling.
“This system really has revolutionized how construction documents are distributed, viewed and followed. We’re here for the members. It’s our job to make their life easier while searching for and finding opportunities,” O’Connor said.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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