A hard job made software23 November 2005
Software claims to be able to help small firms manage their maintenance work contracts. Will Dalrymple looks at the options
“Initially I went out with our service guys, and then saw how the operation works here,” he says. What he found was that it was a major job to pull together all the documents from a job to produce an invoice. “I would ask, why can’t we invoice for this job we finished? We would need a bit of paper from over here, and something from over there, and we were waiting for this thing. It was a mess. An administrative nightmare,” he says.
So he worked with the company’s existing accounts software vendor, GSD Associates, to develop new software that would link together a crane maintenance work order, the parts ordered for it, the labour costs for the job, inspection and certification documents required by law, and invoices. The system lists of all the cranes being serviced, all of the customers, all of the work orders, all the service engineers, all of the parts ordered. Users can start from one variable – such as a particular crane – and work through the system to reach another, such as the engineer linked to the last job on that crane.
“Customers ring up and are unsure of the crane and the fault involved – we tell them,” Cook says.
Cook says that what is special about the system is the way it links together all of the parts.
“Sales order processing software didn’t solve our problems. Everything that the system does is doable by something else. Everything needs to be linked together.”
It took about £20,000 (Euro 29,400) and more than a year to design the software and get it working properly, Cook said. The service manager enters the jobs on the system, engineers fill out reports of their work on the job and hand them in to office staff to enter into the system. After the first job, customers are asked to fill out data sheets about the specification and components on their cranes.
The software has had three business benefits: it has improved the company’s efficiency and cut outstanding debt by about one third, made service agents more productive, allowed the company to operate with fewer members of staff, and helps determine which spare parts to store, by measuring their popularity.
This system pulls customer information from and pushes a final order value to accounts software, such as Sage or Pegasus, but otherwise stands on its own.
The UK’s Insight Access & Handling was the first customer of an off-the-shelf version of this software, and installed it in July. “As a job costing system, it gives a true indication of overheads within jobs, especially production-wise, which are jobs that can often go over,” says Insight group finance manager Jenny Scott. The company manages eight crane service engineers.
“As soon as the engineer has returned from the job, the job can be put on the system and invoiced. Before, it was all held until the end of the month. This is improving our cash flow,” she says. Previously, the company kept track of jobs on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
CY’s Cook has been set up to be able to use the software to check on work while at home – a degree of access that has lead to an unexpected problem. “After a bad job, I’ll say ‘we’re never working for that company again,’ and then at home I’ll see them on the system. They have been putting spoof jobs on the system to wind me up.”
Other UK firms use ITï„µfor performing inspections of lifting equipment. These systems are not primarily intended to track the costs of jobs, but to speed up data entry.
“The use of IT has been a huge saving on our administration costs in recording and assimilating this information,” said Ian Parkinson of Lifting Gear Hire, which has run a software system for about three years.
“Companies can make things difficult for themselves by recording too much data," Parkinson says. "We only record what is required under the law: the condition of the equipment, who examined it, and the date. We don't keep track of information such as when it was bought, who bought it, the price, and maintenance history – although that information might be interesting. Especially for cheap lifting tackle, the item is not worth the effort it takes to keep track of all of this data.”
The system updates the database so that the customer can see the information online almost immediately.
“There is a tangible cost savings and a reduction of time it takes to get the report from the inspector’s hand to the customer's hand. That could have taken up to four weeks in the past - now it is almost immediate.”
In January, Lloyds Britishï„µTesting is rolling out an asset tracking system that uses handheld computers to several large customers – and not just for inspections of cranes, but also pressure vessels and local exhaust ventilation (LEVs).
Engineers visiting a customer’s site find a tagged asset and type in its serial number into a handheld computer. The computers can also read bar codes and RFID chips, according to IT manager Paul McCann.
The software on the handheld computer takes the engineer through the inspection routine and presents boxes for describing faults or tick-boxes. Each asset has a list of common faults to save engineers typing in reams of data.
The computers carry modems, and can transmit the data back to base at the end of the inspection without having to physically return.
The second part of the system is a database that records a customer's sites and breaks them down into areas. It records all of a customer’s assets, and breaks them down into types. Faults are linked to products. All inspection records are kept. The system can also help engineers schedule jobs.
McCann argues that the system, which has taken the company a year to develop with a UK software company, saves labour and improves engineers’ productivity on site. The system saves the need for a secretary to transcribe the engineer’s paper-based notes into a database. Second, the system helps an engineer find the right asset record quickly. On a site with 1,000 items, sorting through paper becomes a major chore, he says. The company is close to signing an agreement to commission software that would provide integrate the database into its financial software in “2006-2007,” McCann said.
Parkinson said that LGH has found its software has changed the way it bills equipment in another service. The company sends a 20-foot standard container of equipment with an engineer to job sites during periods of peak productivity, such as power plant shut-downs. The on-site engineer logs in and out every item of LGH equipment. Although LGH used to charge a fixed-term contract, it is finding that the system allows it to charge a daily or even an hourly hire rate for equipment. Because every item is logged out to a particular rigger, it helps improve accountability and reduces the amount of lost-on-site charges, which in the past accounted for up to 10% of the value of a hire contract but tended to create conflict between the customer and supplier.