Over the last several weeks I've been testing the latest version of FastTrack Schedule 8, by AEC software. The company is well known in the project scheduling software arena for its flagship application, FastTrack Schedule. The award-winning application originally started on the Macintosh platform many years ago, but has been a cross-platform (Mac-Win) application since the mid 90's.
In addition to the Mac and Windows platforms, there is also a Palm OS -based FastTrack Schedule mobile application which can synchronize with your desktop scheduling data.
The Architecture Perspective
There is little doubt in my mind that many architecture firms, perhaps the overwhelming majority of firms, do not utilize project scheduling software at all. To them "project scheduling" software hasn't become a bread-and-butter application, that is, it hasn't been seen as being a necessary tool for the industry at large, like CAD or word-processing. Instead, project scheduling software in architecture is a "bullet" type of application, or what Brian Dunning, technical editor of FileMaker Advisor magazine, refers to as: a piece of software which gives a firm an unfair advantage over its rival peers.
In Brian's words, a bullet type of application automates some aspect of business processes or "provides some decision support data that wasn't previously available." It is this last aspect which makes the users of FastTrack Schedule have some competitive advantage over their competition. And that's clearly where there is value in the app.
The Visualization of Time and Money
What makes FastTrack Schedule 8 so powerful for architects and other project-based professionals is that it allows for the easy visualization of time and money and their interdependencies. If a project milestone slips a week or two you can automatically see the financial impact of that schedule change. If you need to add more bodies to get the job done in time, then you can automatically see the financial impact of that assignment change.
In FastTrack Schedule 8 there are two key elements to how this software works. The first element is that of Time. The second element is Cost. Within a typical project schedule you can see both elements juxtaposed in a meaningful way so that you can understand visually the relationship between time and money. (see image 001)
Let's look at a mock up example of a small architectural project. I built this project schedule from scratch, but the program comes with dozens of industry templates. I have provided lots of enlarged screen shots so feel free to click on many of the smaller images to see them larger.
Looking at the Program in Detail - An Architectural Project Schedule
Although this is not an Architosh In-Depth series article, I wanted to cover enough of the program in detail so that readers can truly understand how this software works and why it is a valuable tool in the architect's arsenal.
Let me address quickly some of the basic questions anyone unfamiliar to project scheduling software and FastTrack in particular might have. First off, the way the interface works is not unfamiliar to the way Microsoft Excel works. You have cells defined by horizontal rows and vertical columns. Most of the vertical columns are apart of the calendar time line (where you make the scheduling), with each column equaling one day. The other vertical columns are on the far left and act like fixed title columns in Excel, enabling you to scroll the schedule to the left and under those cells.
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You begin making your schedule by typing the name of an activity in row number 1, under the Activity Name column. (See image 002). Since we are going to have phases in our job, we'll start by typing "Preliminary Design Phase" in row 1. Notice that you can indent or create sub-activities under primary activities. Thus we have broken our primary activity "Preliminary Design Phase" down into its sub-activities: Schematic Design, Design Development 1, Pricing Estimates and Design Development 2.
Once you have typed in the various activities in your project schedule you begin drawing bars to define their duration. You can select from a range of pre-drawn bar styles or make custom styles. The process is a click and drag mouse action, and as you drag you get valuable feedback in a popup window which tells you the end date and duration in days. The second way to create these bars is to simply click in the i column (i for information) for that row.
FastTrack Schedule really takes off when you examine what you can do with activities on the schedule. (See image 003) A click on the information column will bring up the Information palette for that activity. Selecting the Bars tab allows you to set start and finish dates and times, or duration. You can set and reset "scheduled", "revised", and "actual" dates. Doing so will alter the appearance of the bars on the schedule timeline automatically and produce new calculation summaries.
Where FastTrack Schedule brings money and time together is under the Assignments tab, under the Bars tab. This is where you assign resources. For architects and other similar design professionals working in the services industry, their chief resource is people. Staff therefore are the resources they assign to projects. When you assign a resource to an activity this resource's Use Cost, Std. Rate and OT Rate are automatically calculated based on the percent of assignment. For example, in this mock project I assigned 50% of my available time to this assignment. (See image 004) You do this for each activity in your project.
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To view the impact of assignments per schedule activity, you view your schedule under the Cost Layout. Resource Cost and Total Cost are tabulated for each row of activity where you have made a resource allocation. At the bottom of the window Resource Cost and Total Cost per week are summed up. (See image 005)
In FastTrack Schedule 8 there are three primary views or interfaces where you work with schedule information. The first view is Schedule, under the View menu. (See image 006). In its basic view you can see and work with all of your scheduled activities. In Image 006 we have 25 rows of main activities (like Construction Documents Phase) and secondary activities (like Working Drawings) and tertiary activities (like the list of working drawings). You can collapse the schedule view just like you collapse the classic Mac OS's Finder List view, by clicking on the little triangles to the left of each activity with sub-activities (see image 007).
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The second primary view of the data is the Calendar. (See image 008). This is a traditional calendar view. You can hold down the mouse over bars to reveal information about that activity. And you can create filters in which you can see just activities for particular resources (like staff individuals). (see image 009) These are essentially individual calendars.
The third view of the data is the Resources view. This view is amazing. It can present a ton of useful information about staffing (remember employees are resources), including percentage usage, hourly usage, and assignments. When you open the assignments view you can see individual assignments in bar form complete with hourly unit breakdowns. (See image 010). Like the Schedule view you can hold the cursor over a bar and a yellow window will popup showing pertinent information about that activity. (See image 011). The items that show up in these QuickLook windows, as they are called, can be customized in the preferences.
Some key items you should notice in the Resources view is the percentage usage graph. A red line shows the 100 percent mark. If you are over that a red zone appears to help flag staffing (resource) over allocation.
Next Page: Building a New Resource
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