This is the last piece in a series on companies marketing e-commerce services to electrical contractors. We’ve been able to limit this coverage to four columns because so few companies now seek to provide these solutions.

First, a note: There is a great deal of e-commerce going on “beneath the surface.” Large, national electrical distributors are working on solutions to enable large national contractors to do business electronically. Don’t expect either side of these ongoing efforts to “issue a press release” when they progress from talking to experimenting, or from trials to significant volume.

But that will happen.

Material Express

To understand Material Express, one must start with Earl Beutler, chairman. For a long time, Beutler has created and funded companies that market computerized contracting solutions, including Vision InfoSoft’s electrical estimating offerings and a recently introduced pricing service for distributors, Electronic Pricing Information Catalog (EPIC).

During the dot-com craze, Vision created Material Express and spun it off. The independent company is, frankly, not looking to go for broke.

“With Material Express, we’re basically not doing any marketing right now,” said Beutler. “We feel we’re sort of ahead of the curve—that perhaps the market is not quite ready for us.

“So our short-term goals are to maintain what we have now and improve the product.”

Material Express offers a solution along the lines of TradePower. A contractor can create an estimate using Vision estimating software and then use Material Express to send requests for bids to electrical distributors.

As of the fall, about 50 contractors were signed up as users, with fewer than 10 electrical distributors on the system. Contractors apparently use it for all kinds of orders; according to Beutler, they use the system daily and place orders that average $80.

EPIC introduction

There are many possibilities in Material Express’s recent introduction of EPIC.

First, Vision markets EPIC to electrical contractors. This is a contractors-only pricing service. To see the difference, visit www.visioninfosoft.com/epice.htm, then go over to www.materialexpress.com/epic.asp.

Next, the late 2001 introduction of EPIC for distributors puts the Beutler companies (Vision and Material Express) into competition with Trade Service.

Finally, EPIC for distributors, if successful, will put these companies in closer touch with distributors. The only company in a similar situation is TradePower, which has Trade Service Systems software for electrical distributors and Estimation software for contractors.

If EPIC survives with a strong foot in the contractor world and with this new tip-toe into the distributor’s world, the future blooming (time unspecified) of Material Express could be important. Of course, only time will tell.

Conference notes

I journeyed to Philadelphia in November for the “Computers for Contractors” show. This event is the lesser fall companion of the summer’s “AEC Systems Show” to take place from June 3 to 6 in Anaheim, Calif. (See www.aecsystems.com.)

Here are a few highlights of my visit:

• DPR Construction’s presentation on the use of “4-D” software was memorable. The fourth dimension is time. The software integrates scheduling with design software, enabling the company’s project managers to see how a project will be built—and change project sequencing and schedules ahead of time.

In the presentation, a DPR project manager claimed he “found” a month in the project he was talking about, thanks to the software. Note that this presentation consisted solely of DPR employees, with no vendor company representatives on the panel.

• TradePower and Geac (accounting software vendor) co-sponsored a press conference on how they are working together. TradePower is the source of Estimation electrical estimating software. This event featured a lot of discussion on contractor systems becoming “seamless.”

“We’re getting revolutionary results through an evolutionary process,” said Mike Llewellyn, chairman of TradePower. Among the claims: For a purchase order of five items, a time reduction for the contractor from a standard four minutes down to 15 seconds. This is happening thanks to the integration of Geac’s “back-office” software with TradePower’s offerings. TradePower has reached similar agreements with a number of accounting software companies.

• Joel Orr of Cyon Research gave a presentation concerning extranets, project collaboration Web sites. He said, “Extranets are a no-brainer... unlikely to do you harm” and yet were not being widely adopted. “The AEC industry at largest is simply not ready for big changes.”

You can learn a lot more about technologies in construction by accessing his information-rich Web sites www.extranetnews.com and www.cadwire.net. EC

SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer. He also writes a monthly e-commerce column for www.tedmag.com.