IDEA Releases New Attribute Schema

Oct. 9, 2009
Electrical distributors pushing to be on the forefront of electronic commerce have been clamoring for years for their manufacturers to provide more detailed data about their products.

Electrical distributors pushing to be on the forefront of electronic commerce — or simply wishing to help their customers make better choices when shopping through an online catalog or web storefront — have been clamoring for years for their manufacturers to provide more detailed data about their products.

Seemed like a simple-enough request, but collecting and organizing all that data for the vast number of products sold through the electrical channel makes it a huge undertaking.

Last month at its annual E-Biz Forum in Tucson, Ariz., IDEA, Arlington, Va., introduced a key part of the solution — a new industry standard for organizing all the attributes of the millions of products made and sold through the electrical supply channel.

IDEA, the data exchange and standards association jointly owned by the National Association of Electrical Distributors, St. Louis, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Rosslyn, Va., is the authorized standards-setting body for product data in the U.S. electrical industry. Through a memorandum of understanding with global supply-chain standards body GS1, IDEA manages the UNSPSC (United Nations Standard Products and Services Code) system for electrical products made in the United States.

The new Electrical Industry Attribute Schema is based on UNSPSC codes, which have an inherent taxonomy for identifying the product the code applies to. IDEA has mandated that every product represented in its Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) must have a valid UNSPSC code by Dec. 31, 2009. But the new schema goes far beyond these codes.

The schema is a structure for organizing product descriptive data into 27 fields — 26 are defined for each type of product sold in the industry, and the extra field is a unique identifer, which gives the manufacturer a place to include information on what makes its specific product unlike any other.

The schema is a keystone to developing far more flexible and robust e-commerce applications throughout the industry. With all the data in standard format based on the UNSPSC, distributor web storefronts can be built to help customers drill down into the product data to find exactly the product they need. This could allow distributors to create web purchasing systems on par with the best commercial websites.

The purpose for making the schema an industry standard is to move beyond legacy proprietary product codes and data formats to an open, industry-defined system that can be developed and refined through collaboration over time.

The schema is owned and copyrighted by IDEA. It includes definitions and explanations of what is supposed to go in each field, as well as an embedded table defining industry-standard abbreviations (alternating current is AC; air conditioning is A/C, for example). The abbreviation table is copyrighted separately and has already begun to be adopted by contractor and end-user software systems, said Mary Shaw, director of standards for IDEA.

The Herculean task of specifying 26 attributes for each product type in the industry was the work of the IDEA Standards Committee, which completed the project in March.

IDEA has a pilot project underway with four manufacturers and four distributors that will develop best practices for populating the data within the schema. Participants are manufacturers Hubbell, Burndy, ILSCO and Hoffman; with Graybar, Kirby Risk, Van Meter Industrial and Rexel representing the distributors. This pilot will also help IDEA determine parameters for “scrubbing” the data, or testing to see whether a particular record conforms to the standard.

This initial release of the Electrical Industry Attribute Schema, version 1.0, is IDEA’s first stab at defining the structure of attributed data for the industry. The schema is intended to be “a living document” — revisions will be released annually.

Perhaps the larger task now falls to the manufacturers, who must fill in the data for each SKU they sell. IDEA has new web interfaces in place that will provide manufacturers with more flexible access to their data and allow them to make line-item edits more easily.

The industry’s efforts to streamline and standardize the flow of product data among trading partners has come a long way, but it seems the tools for making more innovative uses of electronic commerce are just now coming into place. Now we’ll get to see what the industry does with these tools.

—Doug Chandler