Estimation Group is kicking off 2006 with some exciting new products, a new way of presenting its products to the market and the launch of new technologies which haven’t been applied to building services before. HVR talks to David Bell, below, managing director
WITH the launch of a new software product for smaller contractors, the re-organisation of its full range of products, application of live updates via the internet for pricing data and the development of a mobile technology solution specifically for contractors, Estimation Group is looking forward to a busy year.
The new product, Estimation Express, has been designed for sole traders and smaller contractors in the heating, plumbing, mechanical and electrical services trades. In an unusual and bold move, the company has decided to make Express available free of charge, via a CD or as a download from the website (www.estimationexpress.co.uk).
Group managing director David Bell explains the rationale behind this innovative approach.
'We've had a range of solutions for m&e contractors, from small companies to large corporations, for several years but there has never been anything on the market for very small contractors and sole traders. After a lot of research we determined these people didn't want, or need, an all-singing, all-dancing system but that they would benefit from something that helped them with their day-to-day tasks.
'The interesting thing is that some of the technologies that we've developed specifically for the Express family, such as automatic Live Updates for pricing data via the internet, have also been applied to existing products to give them greater functionality,' he observed.
To that end, Estimation Express is described as a 'suite of productivity tools that works with up-to-date trade prices' and incorporates tools for submitting quotations, acknowledging orders and raising sales invoices or purchase orders.
'A key requirement for the Express product was that it should be easy to use, so we've included wizards and customisable templates to make everything as easy and quick as possible,' says David. 'In pilot trials we found that most users were running the software very confidently within 30 minutes of starting the programme for the first time,' he continues.
Underlying the Express software is a pricing data library. When they first register the software, users choose the data set to suit their trade and the latest prices are uploaded via the internet.
Subsequently, users can keep their prices up to date by subscribing to Express Plus, which costs around £4 per week, or if they prefer not to subscribe, maintain prices themselves using the simple tools in Express. Express Plus subscribers can use Estimation's newly-developed Live Update technology to update their prices every time they connect to the internet - as well as receiving free technical support, free software updates and the ability to choose additional trade data sets at no extra charge.
'Live Updates for building services pricing data are a world-first, as far as we know,' David enthuses. 'They are a bit like the regular updates you get with anti-virus software but, because of the detailed information that accompanies materials pricing data, we've had to develop our own industry-specific solution,' he adds.
On the move
Nor is Live Update the only new technology the company is bringing to the building services industry this year. Following its recent launch of Service Manager Plus, a service and maintenance management package, Estimation has now developed a mobile communications system so that engineers can use the software on the move.
'We've developed a Java-based solution so it can be used with just about any hand-held device, including mobile 'phones, PDAs and XDAs, hand-held computers and specialist devices such as Blackberry,' David explains. 'This makes it far more flexible than other mobile solutions on the market and means contractors don't have to buy new mobile devices to use the system and therefore benefit from cutting out the cost and time spent on producing and processing paper-based engineers' job sheets, etc.
'Information about a job is sent to the hand-held device using the mobile 'phone network, and the status of jobs is reported back in the same way. The system can also use 'push' technology to send software updates - or even to switch the software on if the engineer has forgotten to do it,' he notes.
Where it all began...
Estimation was formed in 1979 and for most of its history Estimation's products have been aimed at medium to large sized mechanical, electrical and multi-discipline contractors.
In 2001 the product offering was extended, following the acquisition of Barnes Computing. 'As Barnes products were aimed mostly at the small- to medium-sized contractor, they proved to be the perfect complement to our top-end range,' David explains.
The next major development was the introduction of Estimation's own materials pricing libraries, under the Estimation Group Data Services banner, in 2003. Again breaking new ground, the data includes built-in intelligence to make it easier to set up and work with, as well as a 'Pick + Mix' option so that users can choose just the data they want, right down to specific products.
... and where it's all going
The culmination of all of these developments is seen in the way Estimation now presents it products to market - with two additional product families as well as the Express family described above. These are Enterprise and Extreme.
'Armed with all of these products, we needed a way to make it easy for people to understand which groups of products best suited them,' David explains. 'And to some extent the size of a contracting company determines how they are likely to use IT in the business.
'Larger companies usually have dedicated departments for functions such as estimating, procurement and contract management. Smaller companies tend to have fewer dedicated office staff and need to maximise their time on site, while with sole traders and very small contractors it is often the owners or partners who handle the administration as well as the site-based work.
'At the same time, the attitude to IT is very important and there are many small- to medium-sized contractors that make better use of IT in their businesses than some larger organisations. For that reason, our product offerings incorporate the flexibility to meet a wide range of needs,' he continues.
The Estimation Enterprise family incorporates the company's flagship modules, which can operate on a stand-alone basis, or build into a complete, integrated business system. Consequently, the Enterprise offering is aimed squarely at medium to large building services contractors providing mechanical, electrical or combined m&e installation.
Current users typically range in size from a few million pounds turnover up to large
The principal modules in the Enterprise family include estimating, procurement, contract management, contract costing, contractors' financial accounts and service and maintenance management.
The Estimation Extreme family is pitched at small- to medium-sized contractors who want to increase productivity in the key areas of their business, but also need to remain focused on the parts of the business that bring the money in. The family includes packages for estimating, job costing, accounts and service and maintenance management.
'It is particularly important for small- to medium-sized contractors to be able to get the software up and running as quickly as possible, with the minimum distractions from the site-based work,' David asserts.
'So Extreme packages are easy to use with the minimum training while also providing a high level of functionality. Aggressive pricing ensures a fast payback through greater efficiencies and higher profitability.'
Given the extent and breadth of the changes, it's hardly surprising that David is upbeat about the future.
'A massive amount of work, and financial investment, has gone into these developments but it now means we are the only company in the world offering solutions for building services contracting companies of any size. It's incredibly exciting and we're all looking forward to rolling these products out across the industry,' he concludes.
The Express help page