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Having it all… at your fingertips

Richard Appleton, product manager of AMTECH Group’s new online information centre, believes that the Internet has become the information source of choice for many contractors. He explains how online technologies are continuing to evolve to meet the needs of today’s users.

Having it all… at your fingertips

The way the internet has become such an integral part of most of our working lives has been quite remarkable. In our experience, over the last 10 years or so, over 80% of electrical contractors have switched from paper-based to electronic information sources for price data, while the internet is usually the first port of call when looking for manufacturers' product catalogues.

This phenomenon has had a profound effect on what is now expected from our information providers. In particular, we expect virtually immediate access to the information we need today.

In parallel, the ‘information superhighway’ has become integral to the ways in which many businesses operate. Electrical contractors, for example, need quick, easy access to product information to compile specification documents, designs and tenders; helping them to optimise resources and meet the demands of customers requiring a faster turnaround. Online information sources are often also the first port of call for people updating themselves about developments in legislation and best practice.

Thankfully, the online technologies that make all this possible have also kept pace and continue to add value. One obvious example is the switch from paper catalogues to online databases. Pricing databases have also become more sophisticated and immediate and have made a major contribution to the productivity and accuracy of estimating and procurement by contractors.

However, there are times when you need more detailed information about products than just the price. Unfortunately, until recently, access to online information was still very fragmented. It would require visits to many different websites, with additional time spent in pulling information together from various sources. This has been a particular problem for contractors involved in electrical, mechanical and plumbing work, who have a wide range of products to deal with.

Bringing it all together
A more practical and time-effective approach is to have a single portal for all relevant information. While there have been attempts to achieve this, such portals have been limited in their scope – and usefulness. So, it is worth considering what criteria determine a portal that will address everyone’s needs.

Clearly, having key information in one place is vital, and that information should be comprehensive. In addition to basic data to identify each product, such as part number and description, the information should add value by incorporating other information. This could include catalogue pages, technical specifications, installation or maintenance manuals, pictures of products, lists of complementary products (including spares and accessories), clauses describing the product for inclusion in specification documents and possibly even demonstration videos. To that end, it must include a wide range of manufacturers from all sectors so the scope of products is equally comprehensive.

The information must also be easily and freely accessible. It is also a great help if that information can be accessed directly from links within everyday desktop software applications such as estimating, procurement, design and specification programs. When estimating, for example, time can be saved by linking directly from an item in the estimate to a web page containing full technical details, pictures or lists of accessories. This is a greatly streamlined approach compared to the old way of doing things.

Similarly, being able to find information indirectly, using sophisticated search routines from within the site – or direct from a toolbar in your web browser - is a useful tool.

Keeping up to speed with the requirements of the modern world also means recognising that many more people are accessing information on the move, using mobile ‘phones, PDAs, netbooks etc. Again, time savings can be significant. There may, for example, be occasions on site where it would be useful to view or download a product’s specification to assist with installation or maintenance work.

An information portal should not restrict itself to product data if it is to fulfil its role as a single source of information. For example, it should also deliver regular updates and alerts about key issues such as major price changes, industry news, new legislation etc. This turns it into an area where a wide range of highly relevant, work-related information can be accessed in one place.
While information has always been vital to every business, it certainly seems that people want more of it - faster. Therefore, taking advantage of the online technologies that now exist to work smarter and more productively makes perfect sense.

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