High-tech electronic business tools are more than just cool-they save time and make money for electrical contracting firms that use them efficiently.

Today's technology abounds with ways to help a contractor's day-to-day operations. Digital cameras, voice-recognition systems, bar-coding systems, CD-ROMS, palm-top PCs, and other electronics offer job-site solutions for savvy contractors.

Storage media, such as CD-ROM, and the Internet are quickly becoming the way to gain and exchange large volumes of information. Because of its great storage capacity, the CD-ROM provides contractors with a way to archive plans that can be easily accessed. Many U.S. government agencies now distribute construction plans for bids on CDs. Also, the integration of sound, animation, and video on a CD allows a contractor to make an interactive presentation to a prospect with a laptop computer.

So far, the CD-ROM is the only successful optical storage technology. But some observers are looking forward to another optical storage media: the DVD drive, which moves capacity up to 4.7 Gigabits and increases data transfer rates to 1.35 Mbps. Most likely, these DVD drives will be used in a jukebox array within a business. Since commercial users are not going to watch movies on their computer or play games, they have no reason to have a DVD drive on the desktop.

Bar-coded tool trackers

Meanwhile, automatic data collection (ADC)-a system of automatically tracking materials using machine-readable labels-is moving from retail checkout counters and storage warehouses to construction sites. Bar coding, the most widely used form of ADC, involves scanning bar-coded labels for each piece of equipment and then placing the information in a database for later use.

A bar-coding system can pinpoint the exact location of tools, documents, and drawings. More specifically, a tool management program can provide an inventory of assets and the location of each assigned tool, and quickly review supplies, service histories and more.

The construction industry has come to find these tool-tracking systems invaluable. One Illinois contractor found it impossible to keep track of tools and equipment, even though each item was numbered and labeled with the company name. Each tool's number could be entered into the computer, but there still wasn't any way for the firm to know each item's whereabouts instantly. Another contractor, with annual sales of $3 million, lost from $3000 to $5000 worth of tools yearly. A bar-coding system can often be an answer to these problems.

Look for a software package offering many outputs-from simple tracking reports to advanced calculations for depreciation values. A contractor should be able to check the complete history and current whereabouts of given tools or group of tools, then generate reports on tool use and equipment by either employee or project.

Two other forms of ADC used in the construction industry are the touch probe and optical character recognition (OCR). The touch probe is a noncontact sensor used primarily for material management. OCR is a scanning process that translates printed text into machine readable form (it goes into the computer), providing an economical way to capture, store, and transmit documentation.

As a contracting business grows, the quantity of computers and software programs needed for efficient operation also increases. A network cabling system, called a local area network (LAN), allows electronic tools to be connected. With a LAN, nearly all peripherals, such as printers, fax/modems, scanners, and storage devices can be shared, making it seem as if each workstation were directly connected to the equipment.

A network operating system (NOS) is the software that enables the hardware devices on the LAN to function and to communicate with each other. The two most popular NOSs are Microsoft Windows NT and Novell's NetWare. Microsoft intends to extend the reach of Windows NT into industrial control applications; look for NT software to be able to control and automate areas such as the home medical market and factory floor equipment. This could be a boost for contractors involved with the industrial market.

Digital cameras and PCAs

A digital camera allows you to document any project before, during, and after the work is completed. Accompanied by software that is user friendly and affordable, digital cameras are quickly becoming a standard tool in the industry. Any time you want to display something, you can use a digital camera.

Digital cameras can deliver images of reasonably quality that can be transferred into a computer for editing, storage, and retrieval. An affordable camera can be selected from a lineup of models offered by Kodak, Epson, Afga, etc. You decide based on operating features, image resolution, optics, memory and compatibility with operating systems/programs. The images can be easily distributed using high storage capacity diskettes, or they can be sent electronically via the Internet.

Here's an example of how a digital camera can save you time and money. A paper mill suffers a failure on a major drive motor. The plant electrical maintenance chief calls the service manager at an electrical contracting firm, which has a maintenance service arrangement with the paper mill. The plant and the electrical contracting firm are 70 miles part. The electrical maintenance chief wants to know if the motor should be pulled and replaced immediately, but the service manager can't inspect the motor bearings. A plant electrician uses a digital camera to take a close-up photo of the bearing housing at 8 a.m.; the photo file is attached to an E-mail message sent via the Internet. At 8:30 a.m., the contractor/service manager views the photo of the bearing on a computer screen and makes a decision.

Personal computing assistants (PCAs), the keyboard and pen-based wonders, are handy for any contractor constantly on the move visiting job sites. Conventional wisdom has it that keyboard-based units are more appropriate for inputting data, and pen-based units are better suited for accessing existing data (such as calendars and contacts) downloaded from a desktop PC. However, the keyboard type of PDA also offers software for accessing such schedules or contacts.

The keyboard-based devices are usually built on Microsoft's Handheld PC (H/PC) specifications. Three notable devices are NEC Computer Systems' Mobile Pro 750C, HP 620 LX Palmtop PC, and Sharp Electronics Mobilon HC 4500. All run on Windows CE 2.0, and all have color screens. With an impressive operating system (OS), 3Com's Palm Pilot III is a big improvement over the first generation palm-sized PCs. The latest PCA versions smoothly integrate with PCs, providing access to files at remote locations. Most PDAs have add-on hardware products, like PCMCIA cards for modem communications, extra memory and wireless communications.