Most spreadsheet users track just their more expensive stuff. They often say, "It's too time-consuming to hassle with the small stuff," perhaps because data entry in a spreadsheet can be slow, cumbersome, and error-prone.

Consider, for example, the number of keystrokes and mouse clicks required to transfer a tool in a spreadsheet: something like 22, if the assumptions described below are accurate.

  • Open the spreadsheet FIND window (Ctrl+F or click EDIT then FIND): 1 or more clicks or keystrokes
  • Type in the tool number (6 characters assumed) and press ENTER or click OK: 7 keystrokes
  • Close the FIND window: 1
  • TAB to or click in the location column and type the new location (6 characters assumed): 7 or more
  • TAB to or click in the date column and type the transfer date: 6 or more

  • Repeat for each tool (you can save a few keystrokes by copying and pasting the location or date)

How many keystrokes and mouse clicks are required to transfer a tool using Tracker 7's Fast Entry option? Maybe 14 for the first tool, 7 for subsequent tools to the same location.

  • Open the TO JOB window (Alt+J or click the TO JOB button): 1
  • Type in the new location (6 characters assumed) and press ENTER or pick it from a popup list: 6 if typed, potentially fewer if selected from the list
  • You don't need to enter a transfer date if the item is being sent today: 0 (generally)
  • Type in a tool number (6 characters assumed) and press ENTER: 7

  • Type in another tool number (if it's going to the same job) and press ENTER: 7

Fewer keystrokes mean less time entering data, more items tracked, or both. But there's more to data entry than keystrokes. It's easy to make mistakes when entering data in a spreadsheet, mistakes that can be time-consuming to find and fix. You're better off catching errors BEFORE they are saved. That's what the Tracker does. You can't enter a bad tool or job number.

What more is there? How about automated data entry? The Tracker automatically fills in data when it can (transfer dates, for example) and handles many complex tasks quickly (for example, you can move everything from a completed job back to your warehouse with 5 mouse clicks). Reduce data entry time further with barcoding or by integrating the Tracker with accounting system.

Some systems track less expensive tools – ladders are an example - one-by-one. Each ladder has a unique item number. If you send 5 ladders to a job, you need to check out 5 specific ladders. Is this a big deal? Maybe not. Some companies choose to track their ladders individually, even if their tool-tracking system can handle quantity items. But it becomes a big deal when less-expensive items are considered: scaffolding, concrete forms, light stands, small power tools, and the like.

The typical construction company has a lot of money tied up in less-expensive stuff. Stuff that would be easier to track in quantity than one-by-one. Like extension cords. You don't care which extension cord is where. You just want to know that 5 have been sent to job ABC and 7 are sitting in your warehouse.

Some people with warehouse backgrounds call quantity items SKUs (stock keeping units).

Many home-grown tool tracking systems don't handle quantity items. The data entry in such systems can be cumbersome, so someone decided not to bother with the less-expensive stuff. This approach leaves money on the table. A good tool-tracking system helps you pick that money back up and put it in your pocket, where it belongs.

A common complaint from people who track tools with spreadsheets is, "I don't get the reports I want" or, more precisely, "It's hard to print reports that include just the data I want, sorted, sub-totaled and formatted the way I want." The limited search capabilities of spreadsheets are part of the problem. But, fundamentally, spreadsheets weren't designed to display data in different formats. Database reports are different. Their whole purpose is to slice and dice data in different ways. Subtotaled, counted, summarized, formatted to highlight certain results (or just to look good). A good tool-tracking product will take advantage of this flexibility and offer a library of pre-built reports.

For example, most companies want a tool report that lists everything at each job with the cost of those items sub-totaled by job. In the Tracker, this could be done with a few mouse clicks. In a spreadsheet, you might haved to sort by job then add a subtotal for each (depending on the way the spreadsheet was set up). Not a big deal, right? It might take a few minutes to insert some subtotals, but you'd get the result eventually. But what if the boss asks for the report to be subtotaled by description? In the Tracker, a few mouse clicks. In a spreadsheet, you'd probably need to sort by description then add a subtotal for each.

The point? A good tool tracking system offers pre-built reports that slice and dice your data in different ways. If you want the same thing from a spreadsheet, you need to invest time and effort.

It can be real useful to know where a tool's been.

  • Let's say something's returned from a job and is put on the shelf. You look at it a few days later and notice it's broken or damaged. If you have a record of who had it last, you know who's responsible.
  • If tools are disappearing from a particular job, you have a record. And a better idea where to start looking.
  • If you're trying to decide whether a tool's worth fixing, you can see how many times it's been fixed already, at what cost.
  • Get a little more sophisticated and you can figure out how much your tools have been used. Knowing that, you can make better rent-versus-buy decisions.

We've seen (in 30 years) just 1 spreadsheet that captured tool histories. It was pretty cumbersome. There were columns for the current location, the next-most-recent, 2d-most recent, 3d-most-recent, etc. Each had a corresponding date column. When you moved something to a new location, you moved the current, 2d-most and 3d-most locations (and dates) 2 columns to the right before entering the current location and date. Most people tracking tools in spreadsheets don't bother with this. But the price they pay is: no history.

In contrast, when you move something from one place to another in a good, specialized tool-tracking system, the newest location is simply added to the list of previous locations: histories are kept automatically and effortlessly.

If you need billing, you know it. In fact, you may already be billing your jobs and looking for a way to do it faster, more easily, and with added features.

The Tracker billing system lets like you act like a rental yard for your own jobs and employees, renting and selling equipment, tools and supplies. You might use the results internally, for job costing. Or externally, invoicing customers for time-and-materials jobs. Or both.

You can bill with a spreadsheet, but your options are limited and the process is generally cumbersome. A common approach among spreadsheet users is to bill just for sale items. That's pretty easy. Rentals are more difficult. People often bill monthly. If an item's out for just part of a month, they need to figure out what they're going to do. You could bill a fraction of the month rate, or only bill if the item's out more than half the month. Spreadsheet users rarely attempt to upgrade from day to week to month rates.

One of the advantages of the Tracker’s more sophisticated billing system is: just by tracking stuff – just by moving it from job ABC to job DEF - you're entering the data needed for billing. When you're ready to bill, you don't need to run a set of spreadsheet calculations. You just print a bill. The Tracker calculates the results using the options you've selected.

The Tracker’s billing options fall into two main categories: LOGIC and PRE-SETS.

LOGIC refers to the arithmetic used to calculate a bill. You might think this is cut-and-dried. But after working with billing systems for 30 years, we continue to discover variations. For example, if an item’s out from the first to the last day of February (28 days in most years) do you charge for a full month or for a portion of a month (the average month is, after all, 30.42 days)? What if you don't work weekends? Do you subtract a day for President's Day? The Tracker offers several different forms of billing logic (see our help system or tutorials or call us for details).

PRE-SETS are values you set up in advance. In a sophisticated billing system, you can modify those for a specific transaction, allowing you to deal with exceptions. But normally, you just accept the PRE-SETS. What PRE-SETS does the Tracker offer?

  • Rates. What's the standard charge for a day, week, and month?
  • Rate periods. Do you want to sell or rent an item? If rent, do you want it to start with the day, week or month rate? Items that are expensive to move often go out on the month rate, which means: you charge for a month, minimum, even if the item comes back a week later.
  • Rate structures. If an item goes out on the day rate, do you want it to stay on that rate or upgrade to the week rate? If you want it to upgrade, when (on what day) to do you want that to occur?
  • Discounts. Do you want to give one job a standard 10% discount, another 5%? Or do you want to set up entirely different rate structures for different jobs or groups of jobs, so you charge job ABC 90% of the standard for one group of items and 85% for another?
  • Rental caps. Do you want items to stop renting when they items 90% of their cost? 110%? Do you want to set the cap by item or by job?
  • Return credits. If an item is sold then returned, what percentage of the price do you want to credit back?
  • Transaction codes. Do you want to automatically assign transaction codes based on an item's ID? The job you're assigning it to?

Preventive maintenance can be handled with a spreadsheet if you're only dealing with a few pieces of equipment or your requirements are fairly simple, for example, 'Inspect every truck every 3 months.' All you need is an ID and a last done date. If you don't have too many trucks, it's pretty easy to see which need to be checked this month. But what if you want to get more detailed or more complex, for example, 'Change truck oil every 3,000 miles or 90 days, whichever occurs first, but change heavy equipment oil every 100 hours.'

The more items, the more detail, the more complexity you want to track, the more a software package can help you. Waterwheel's software can track preventive maintenance for as many items as you like, at the level of detail you want. Set up different schedules for oil changes and tune ups, add annual inspections, tire rotations, and any other routine inspection, callibration or maintenance task.

Your system should warn you when maintenance is due and keep a record of maintenance and repair costs, so you don't keep repairing equipment that should be scrapped. If you repair equipment in-house, your system should maintain your parts inventory. And it should run reports that list the maintenance due for equipment at jobs, including the parts that are required, so your mechanic can grab the stuff he needs before heading out for a maintenance run.

Some people have tried barcoding and vowed never to try it again. Others swear by it. Why such varied views and strong emotions? Probably because barcoding was over-sold: unrealistic expectations were raised and dashed.

Data collection with a barcode reader is much faster and more accurate than hand-typing. Since tool tracking is all about data collection, what's the problem?

Some people think that anyone and everyone should be able to use a barcode system with little or no training. This is questionable. Think of a clerk in a grocery store. He or she needs to know how to enter data using a keypad when the scanner won't read a barcode. That's why dropping a barcode scanner into your warehouse probably won't give you consistent, reliable results unless your people are trained (and maybe not then, given the problems honor systems often have).

Some neophytes assume barcode labels will last a long time. They will, inside a gang box cover, but probably not on a submersible pump. Many barcode systems fail because the labels come off or are damaged and not replaced consistently. As fewer and fewer items can be barcoded, the system becomes less and less useful. What's the solution?

  • Be realistic. Labels WILL fall off and be damaged. Plan to inspect (and, if necessary, replace) them regularly.
  • Buy high-quality, pre-printed labels with the toughest, most-durable adhesive you can find (we can recommend a source) but don't assume you'll use them on everything.
  • The labels you can print from the Tracker are good enough for some applications, for example, stuck inside a utility box; or on the shelves, bins, or drawers that contains small items.
  • In Tracker 8, you can scan the barcodes printed on packaging if you set them up as cross-references.

  • What about the difficult items, those that are covered with grease or that need to be spray washed? You could key in their IDs (which should be etched or painted on each item, in any case), scan them from a barcode ‘book’ (a set of barcodes printed on plain paper) or use metal labels (attach them with rivets or screws, NOT adhesive; and make sure the barcode is engraved in the metal, not printed, as ink on metal is easy to scratch off).

Why integrate your tool tracking and accounting systems? To reduce or eliminate the double-entry of data, thereby speeding things up and reducing errors. Take job numbers as an example. If your accounting and tool tracking systems are separate, you have to enter them twice: once in your accounting system then again in your tool tracking system. If you integrate the 2 applications, you only need to enter your jobs once.

It doesn't take that much time to re-enter jobs. But what about employees, customers, inventory, tracking codes, purchase orders, equipment, meter readings, etc. A lot of data is often shared between your accounting and tool tracking systems. And this only includes data moving from your accounting to your tool tracking system. Going in the reverse direction, from tool tracking-to-accounting, you might move inventory transfers, PO receipts, physical counts and billing data. The more data you move, the more time you save. And the more valuable integration becomes.

For a small company, integration may be more trouble than it's worth. But the larger your company becomes, and the more you want your tool-tracking system to do, the more you gain by automating the movement of data between your tool tracking and accounting systems. Some sophisticated tool tracking systems offer integration right out-of-the-box or can be custom-integrated relatively easily.