Until recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and its contractors used the DOS-based Micro-Computer Aided Cost Engineering System (MCACES) application to prepare cost estimates for military, civil works and environmental projects. However, hardware and operating system advancements quickly outpaced enhancements and updates to MCACES, rendering it an inefficient, dated and frustrating application to use.
Ongoing problems with MCACES caused some users to use locally-developed or commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) programs to get the job done, compromising the effort to maintain a single standardized cost estimating system throughout the Department of Defense (DOD).
Knowing MCACES was no longer working properly on the current standard operating system platform, USACE made three significant decisions. First, instead of upgrading MCACES again, they decided to completely replace it. Second, instead of using a COTS product, they decided to create their own application from scratch. Lastly, instead of selecting a software development contractor to take the lead on the project, USACE contracted with a cost engineering firm, Project Time & Cost, Inc. (PT&C), which has expertise in both cost estimating and software, to develop the application.
With heavy input from USACE and private cost estimating communities, MCACES Second Generation (MII) was created. The decision to invest in the development of a completely new state-of-the-art cost estimating application ensured the new software addressed the needs of the everyday user and could be modified or enhanced -- at any time and in any way -- at the sole discretion of USACE.
Development and Use
MII incorporates new features not possible in the previous versions of MCACES. As a true Windows application, it allows complete flexibility to perform any work breakdown structure and any type of desired markup. Its current version far exceeds all the capabilities that had existed in the legacy MCACES application.
MII is being used for military, civil works and environmental projects by USACE and its contractors, but its use is not limited to DOD. It also has been used by other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy.
In a directive issued in 2006 regarding the use of MII, Donald L. Basham, P.E., Chief, Engineering and Construction, USACE Directorate of Civil Works stated, "By providing standard cost estimating tools and databases, we are able to provide interchangeable models and assemblies for repetitive type work, provide for virtual cost estimating and regional collaboration, and provide the capability of interfacing with the latest technology and databases necessary to perform our mission."
Users of previous versions of MCACES have found that MII is easier to learn and use than its predecessors. The program is intuitive and offers more flexibility and features than its predecessor. Alan Cdebaca of the USACE Albuquerque District, who has been using MII since it was first released, said "MII is a lot easier to use than the old MCACES." In particular, models and assemblies are much easier to build in MII. As with any software application, "the more you use it, the better you get," added Cdebaca.
Juan Dominguez, of the USACE Los Angeles District, recommended that new MII users attend specialized training "because it's very different from the old MCACES."
MII isn't an application that can be learned overnight, but with formal training, good old-fashioned "playing around with it" and tapping into the expertise and lessons learned from other users, Dominguez said, "it's considerably easier to learn to use than MCACES was."
Inaccurate cost estimates are not only useless, but also can be dangerous. Accurate estimates are critical to the budget process. MII is set up to compute labor burdens and overtime more accurately than the old MCACES. In addition, MII's integrated Unit Price Book (UPB) is better than its predecessor’s, with more items and more accurate material costs. However, the latest pricing databases are tailored only for MII, so updates to MII's UPB are not reflected in the databases used by the old MCACES. Any remaining users of MCACES risk basing estimates on outdated information.
According to Cdebaca, "The strongest incentive cost estimators have to use MII is that the latest databases are integrated. In order to do the best estimate possible, you can't be using outdated information."
Training and Support
Because MII was designed and developed with the everyday end user in mind, users benefit from high- quality assistance, including e-mail, telephone and online support. Phone calls and e-mails are answered within 15 minutes and online ticket submissions are answered within 30 minutes. There is also an online knowledge base system whereby users can log on and search for answers to their specific questions.
MII training includes exercises that have been designed by cost engineers to effectively demonstrate routine and advanced features of the software. With basic and advanced training available, users learn shortcuts, tips and tricks that will make their jobs easier. Without formal MII training, users may miss out on some of the advanced functionality offered by the application, or may unnecessarily continue to use a long workaround instead of a simple feature offered by MII.
MII development is currently in its third version. In the newest version, PT&C is incorporating online registration functionality and the ability to license and download commercial cost book libraries. Additionally, USACE districts will be able to customize these cost book libraries for their own regions.
MII's future is not limited to just what can be done with the software itself, and many users have expressed an interest in exporting to other applications such as spreadsheet or scheduling programs. Ideas from MII users are a key ingredient to making MII's future the best it can be. Since MII is a custom application, suggestions from routine users stand a real chance of being incorporated into future updates and versions.
All users will agree, however, that no matter how sophisticated an estimating software application is, it will never replace the wisdom and sound judgment of its cost estimator user. It is a helpful tool, but it is just a tool. As users become more comfortable with its advanced functionality, and as USACE continues to develop and enhance MII, it will continue to benefit USACE and its customers for many years to come.