Finding funds for clients and implementing new information technologies allow Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick to do more with less.
Economists may debate the state of the national economy, but here in Southeastern Michigan there’s little question that we’ve been under economic pressure for some time now. As a result, our firm—Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick (AEW)—has faced a two-pronged business challenge: There’s less work, which drives more competition for what work remains. In addition, because clients are pressured to comply with unfunded mandates and deal with aging infrastructures, they’re asking more of us, regardless of whether they have the funding to pay for it. For instance, to make sure they’re getting the most for their money, municipalities are increasingly asking us to evaluate and sometimes bid alternates such as concrete versus asphalt, or open-cut excavation versus directional drilling.
These pressures have motivated us to streamline project execution to preserve profit margins. We’ve adapted by using technology to make project delivery more efficient. And, we’ve adapted on the new-business front by helping municipal clients find funding. As a result, we’ve avoided painful workforce reductions at the same time that we’ve improved client service.
These innovations resulted from the following problems:
- A state program of low-interest loans for infrastructure repairs demanded such elaborate documentation that communities were unable to afford the application process.
- The reporting process for AEW’s construction administration department was encumbered with redundant data entry and difficulty keeping pace with high volumes of work.
- When clients called with billing questions, we had to tell them we would get the information and call them back, necessitating work interruptions and delays while we dug up the data.
- Each team member managed his or her project information in such a way that it was rarely available to other team members, limiting the ability of principals and project managers to access information and respond to clients.
AEW has played a key role in securing funds that municipality clients can use to pay for infrastructure projects. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has long offered low-interest loans to communities needing to comply with Clean Water Act regulations. At an interest rate of 2.5 percent, these state revolving fund loans are a great resource for communities needing to upgrade infrastructure. However, the application process is beyond the means of most communities. For example, communities need video evidence of the condition of their sewer lines. The cost to televise sewer lines, analyze the video, make repair recommendations, and prepare the project plan could run from $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars.
In 2005, to reduce this barrier to loan applications, the state implemented a grant program (S2 Grants) that would supply the funds needed to complete the application process. At a seminar explaining this grant program, AEW Senior Project Engineer Scott Lockwood asked the presenter if we could use those grant monies to assess structural defects in pipe before problems became apparent, as opposed to limiting the funds’ use to combined sewer overflow or sanitary sewer overflow situations after the fact. Lockwood realized that the state’s grant money could help us discover where pipe was cracked, deteriorated, or close to collapsing to apply for state revolving funds to line or grout the sewers, or repair them in some other manner.
The state said we could indeed use S2 Grants to detect problems in sewer lines. So, AEW has completed the paperwork for the S2 Grants on behalf of a dozen clients that are small and mid-size communities. These grants give towns the ability to televise all their sewer lines—an invaluable assessment for established Michigan communities with 70-year-old sewers.
As a result, AEW has used S2 Grants totaling nearly $10 million to inspect 2.4 million feet—more than 450 miles—of various-size sanitary sewer lines in 11 communities. We estimate that the communities will be applying for state revolving fund loans of nearly $60 million as a result. As those funds become available, AEW will be called upon to assist clients in developing plans and specifications for the needed repairs.
Information management solutions
Helping our clients secure financing is one form of client service. Managing projects efficiently is another. At AEW, we like to be cautiously innovative. We keep an eye on new technologies and adopt them when they are proven. That way, technology is more cost-efficient than hiring.
To streamline operations once the work is in-house, we have turned to a number of software technologies that have passed the "bleeding edge" phase of technology development to become proven reliable solutions, including FieldManager construction management software from Info Tech, Deltek Vision project accounting software, and Newforma Project Center software for project information management.
Construction management — AEW provides construction observation services for more than 15 municipalities and other government agencies. Our daily reports are used to determine payments to contractors, so they need to be timely and accurate. Before we found a better way, we commonly had our observers complete a daily report by hand. That report was then checked by a technician, and that day’s quantity of work on each pay item was entered into a weekly summary. Then, once a month, the weekly summaries were totaled and entered into a pay estimate spreadsheet.
Time-consuming and expensive during normal workloads, the work could be overwhelming during peak months. We were challenged to stay on schedule and sought ways to better serve our clients and contractors.
We found the answer in FieldManager, an Info Tech solution we had used on federal highway projects. FieldManager software automates the entire process of daily reports. For example, our observers enter data into the FieldBook component of FieldManager software on a laptop at the jobsite. We document weather, contractors on site, personnel on site, work items completed, and materials and equipment being used. Our observer transfers that data to a PC in the office so that at month’s end, when the pay estimate is due the contractor, it takes only a few minutes to prepare. Additionally, now it’s easy to quantify, verify, and check claims made by contractors at any point in the project.
We are currently using FieldBook on five projects and tested FieldManager on two local government projects this summer. Based on that success, we’ll adopt FieldManager for construction project administration during the 2009 season. By reducing the time our technicians spend checking and inputting daily reports, we expect to keep current with increased demand in other areas, ultimately improving service to clients and contractors and decreasing costs without increasing headcount.
Business information—Using a project accounting system, AEW employees enter timesheet information directly into Deltek Vision at their workstations. In addition to aiding the way we track time spent on various projects, it saves our accounting department from entering 120 timesheets every week. It also eliminates scanning documents for archiving purposes. But the real economies result from improvements to client service and workflow.
For example, recently a client called inquiring about an invoice on a "cost-not-to-exceed" contract. The client wanted to know if he could anticipate additional invoices. Using Vision, I determined whether we had charged any additional time since the last invoice was generated, answering the question on the spot. Before Deltek Vision, I would have had to say, "I’ll get back to you," and consult my colleagues in accounting.
Vision also makes it easy to pull up past invoices, save them as PDFs and e-mail them to clients, finance directors, or accounting departments. Now that many clients prefer electronic invoicing, we’re easily able to accommodate them.
Project information management—Recently, our president, Roy Rose, could not find some key project information when a project manager was out of the office. On another occasion, he was unable to find information that was in another individual’s e-mail. Roy assigned me and some colleagues to a quality improvement team to solve the problem. We identified two issues. One, paper files needed to be managed in such a way that if someone was out of the office, others could find the information. Two, electronic media required management. This turned out to be a much broader, more complicated issue.
For example, employees previously kept e-mail in their inboxes, rather than file them with other project documents. If they were filed properly, they were hard to access afterward. Individuals could not see each other’s e-mails. It was difficult to share large files with other team members. Finding information consumed hours per person per week. Marking up and sharing drawings was an involved task. The list was long and daunting.
Newforma Project Center software includes dozens of functions for project information management, such as the search function shown here. In this example, a search for the term "concrete" reveals a wide variety of common industry document types that have the word "concrete" in them somewhere, as the previewed e-mail highlights.
Fortunately, Newforma had been developing solutions to these problems and more for years by the time we realized they were hampering our productivity. So, when we saw a demonstration of Newforma Project Center software, we were ready to invest. Newforma Project Center belongs to a new category of software for project information management, or PIM. Despite being an enterprise solution, implementation took just a few days, and initial training took only 90 minutes.
I use Project Center daily, and our systems manager, Terri Dedischew, appreciates its low-maintenance nature and the way its e-mail management functions prevent Microsoft Exchange Server crashes, which our e-mail volume has been known to cause. Now we’re able to find answers to client questions promptly and efficiently, and we’re saving a few hours per week per user—time we need to meet other demands and control costs.
Satisfaction of solving problems
It’s often said that engineers are problem-solvers, and we’re no exception. Our firm is weathering tough economic times by creatively addressing problems as they arise in our practice. Are clients short of money for infrastructure repairs? We help find funding. Are daily reports taking too much time? We find tools to streamline that process. Are billing and timekeeping raising overhead? We implement technology to economize those jobs. Is project information management too important to leave to individuals to solve? We adopt software that makes PIM easy, enterprise-wide.
That approach has helped AEW improve service at a time of increased client demands and pressure on margins. It’s all part of our mission to provide solutions for people and engineer strong communities.
Stephen V. Pangori, P.E., is an executive vice president of Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick, Inc. (www.aewinc.com), a 120-person civil engineering, surveying, and architectural firm with offices in Shelby Township, New Hudson, and Roseville, Mich. Founded in 1968, the firm’s services include a full range of engineering for municipal and private clients, including grant funding assistance, geographic information systems, construction observation, construction administration, and hydrology/hydraulics.