Short and Long
The most common number of characters available in the short description seems to be 40. The long description, often called the purchase order description, should be the full version of the short description. It is not a continuation of the short description.
The long description is the long, unabbreviated version of the short description
In SAP, the long description is normally 72 characters wide, so it fits well on the printed purchase order, and it has, in theory, no limit to the number of lines. However, if the long description ends up longer than 20 lines, then there is probably something wrong with the way the line is being created. Regardless of the tool / system / ERP / maintenance management software / database you will probably have many field length limitations to work with. This is not all bad as it keeps many consultants gainfully employed! Working successfully within the limited space requires discipline. If rules are not strictly adhered to, data gets entered in a free text format and there is no consistency from one record to the next. The number of duplicate records multiply with alarming speed. Structuring a description is not particularly hard or challenging. The best tools construct descriptions dynamically. This gives the control required and allows multiple descriptions to be derived. Some of the considerations to consider:
Some systems have case sensitive searches which can cause all sorts of issues, so consistency is essential. Best practice for the short description is an all UPPER case short description. This works well for search results and purchase order printing.
For long descriptions there is more flexibility with the format. The first line should contain the noun and modifier in UPPER case. The attribute labels should be displayed and can be UPPER or First Letter Capitals. The attribute values should be in UPPER case. Attribute units of measure should follow the recognised scientific notation. Manufacturer names, part numbers and brands should be formatted to match.
Gaining agreement across an organisation on these description standards can take days as everyone seems to have an opinion.
The good thing is, that any half decent tool will manage all of the case issues automatically.
Commas, colons, semicolons or spaces are commonly requested. Words of warning! DO NOT USE COMMAS OR FULL STOPS as separators. These characters will cause problems. Commas are used for CSV files, so including them inside a description can cause problems when migrating data. In continental Europe, commas are frequently used as decimal separators which is yet another reason not to use them as separators.
In the short description you are trying to improve the organisation's ability to find what it is looking for. By using separators you use up valuable space and limit the likelihood of finding the item because, for example, VALVE;CHECK may be read as a single word. The best solution is to leave separators out of short descriptions altogether and to just use a space between the words. No space is needed between values and units of measure.
NOTE: " ' and ` are also problem characters, mainly due to issues of data when it is touched by Excel. Abbreviating INCH to " is often contentious. It should be avoided as it causes major problems when moving data. Best practice is to use IN instead.
There is often more information available than space. Knowing what to include and what to exclude is important. Understanding that the same item may have many applications is another factor to consider. For example, a pump may be suitable for pumping oil, water or mud. One person calling it an oil pump is going to potentially exclude the use for other applications. Items should be described based on what they are. So a better description may start PUMP CENTRIFUGAL. In general, the application of an item should be excluded from the descriptions. The application of an item should be held under bills of material (BOM).
When setting the rules for allowable information, consider how the same item would be described by another individual on a different occasion.
Manufacturer names and part numbers have their own fields in a material master. As such, they should not be included in the short description. Brands should be considered for inclusion, although ideally they should be held in a separate field. These fields are often concatenated at the end of the long description, each with its own labelled line.
Notes are often requested as additional information to be included at the end of the long description. The problem with this is that duplicates may be masked because the information entered is not structured or controlled.
Plant specific information (for example, "in Bob's filing cabinet below the fax machine") should not be included in the description because the same item should be catalogued for potential use across an organisation.
Where there is too much information it may not fit into the number of characters available. Poor practice is to try and condense the individual description. A better solution is to acknowledge that more information is available and contained in the long description. This is indicated by replacing the final character of the short description with a symbol. The favoured indicator for this is > although % has been used.
The short description should follow a format of noun modifier and attributes. Each noun modifier pair will define the item and its appropriate attributes, values and units of measure.
The following is an example from the Oil and Gas industry. Casing is used to line an oil well to protect it from collapse.
Once all the information has been captured rules are applied to create a succinct and accurate short description. This one is 40 characters long with the truncation indicator.
CSG 9-5/8IN 47LB/FT 13%CRL80 VAM TOP HT>
In the long description the noun and modifier (if required) are on the first line, with each attribute label, value and unit of measure on a separate line.