Intelligent Part Numbers might be a good idea in “connected world”

Intelligent Part Numbers might be a good idea in “connected world”


Part numbers. This is probably one of the most discussed topic in manufacturing and related software domains. How to define Part Numbers? How to manage it using multiple systems? What schema to use? Engineers and software vendors are trying to figure out how to do it. Sometimes, it is very confusing.

Dumb numbers vs. Intelligent number is a quintessential moment of every discussion about Part Numbers. Few months ago, I shared my thoughts about why to use intelligent part numbers in 21st century. There are 3 reasons why intelligent numbers are good – independent from software; self-defined; can be used across multiple systems.

The traditional way is to think about Par Number as identifier in PDM, PLM or ERP system. This is still a valid assumption. However, manufacturing is getting more connected these days. As a result of this an increased number of people and related services can be interested to use part numbers outside of the system for variety of reasons – design contractors, suppliers, contract manufacturers, customer service teams, e-commerce website, etc. To hook them all to a single PLM system can be not feasible. It will might force to review the way systems are using part numbering schema.

One of the way to think about it is think about data and not specific numbering schema. Here is a link to one of my earlier posts from last year speaking about. The idea of disconnecting part numbers and classification from a specific application is one that I want to point out today.

My attention was caught by the development of Common Part Library (CPL) by Octopart. Check more about CPL here. Octopart is a software outfit developing search engine for electronic parts and helping engineers to build electronic products. The following blog post speaks about introducing CPL Part Numbers. It appears to be an interesting problem. You might think eventually, you search Parts and getting Manufacturing Part Numbers. But Octopart engineers had a different opinion and decided to invent so called – generic part, which is in my view an approach similar to how how most of PLM vendors did in the past. The following passage explains guidance Octopart engineers used to develop new part number schema.

The MPNs are not always easy to interpret, and as we developed a scheme for identifying generic parts in the CPL, these are the lessons we took from the MPN naming schemes: 1/ The part numbers should encode useful information. 2/ The part numbers should be readable without having to consult an external reference. 3/ The naming should be consistent across component types.

What I found interesting is how Octopart is using “soft” identification parameters to makes CPL Part Number meaningful for engineers search for parts. CPL part number is allowing to reference multiple parts without specifying manufacturing part number (MPN).


What is my conclusion? Octopart CPL approach to define meaningful part numbers is representing an interesting approach to build relationships between physical components manufactured by multiple vendors, but in fact can be interchanged under specific circumstances. You may think about it as “alternate” part in PLM solutions, but I’d consider Octopart use case generic and broader. It is an interesting attempt to build identification beyond organizational boundaries, which can be very helpful to engineers, contractors and manufacturers these days. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Pictures credit Octopart blog.


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  • EdA

    Please, no.

    I believe you have confused “catalog number” with “part number”. These are distinct concepts that apply to entirely different circumstances.

    A catalog (marketing, model, product, sales) number offers a simple, stable identifier to the outside world. The catalog number represents high-level marketing characteristics that, if you wish, can be encoded. Think of the evolution on a BMW 325i or Boeing 757. Clearly these are useful generic labels for some purposes, but they do not represent interchangeable engineering objects over their sales lifespan.

    A part number system uniquely identifies an item approved for a specific application. Accurate, consistent, unambiguous identification over the entire part lifecycle is essential for correct product assembly, testing and maintenance. A new identifier is assigned whenever a variation in attributes can have a meaningful effect on the item’s form, fit, or function in the application.

    Octopart’s catalog number is simply an alias to other suppliers’ marketing identifiers. Octopart’s catalog number can’t encode all relevant characteristics for everyone’s possible use, nor could you expect that catalog number or its sources to be interchangeable for all applications. In your cited example, can we really be sure that the Panasonic, Vishay and Yageo have the identical characteristics for, say, substrate thermal expansion, China RoHS compliance or maximum wave soldering temperature? Probably not without our own investigation and qualification — at which point we apply our own part number. Octopart is not saying these parts are entirely interchangeable in all cases, but that they appear “close enough” to justify further investigation. That’s a catalog number, not a part number.

    “Intelligent” (“smart”, “significant”, “coded”) catalog numbers are perfectly acceptable — provided you understand their limitations.

    However, intelligent part numbers are fragile and expensive, and pose substantial yet sometimes subtle problems in application. For a thorough discussion, please see: “Part numbering system design” ( and “Intelligent part numbers: The cost of being too smart” (

    Kind regards.

  • beyondplm

    Ed, thanks for your comment and brining a controversy in this discussion. I actually like the way you define catalog number – stable identifier for outside world. This stable identifier can be meaningful (intelligent) or meaningless (dumb). But it is still an identifier – Part Number. It often called Manufacturer Part Number or OEM Part Number. In some situation you can get SPN (Supplier Part Number).

    Typically PLM implementations are mapping these “numbers” to some “internal” part numbers used inside of organization. In a large established company, these part numbers are coming from ERP (and sometimes from PLM) system. In a smaller company, these numbers can be generated by a person. One of the reasons why PLM implementations prefer not to use outside numbers is because in case of change (which is not controlled by PLM implementation), it will impact product data. Which makes sense, of course.

    However, my point is that when we deal with global connected systems, mapping between “internal numbers” and outside world numbers can be impractical. That’s why Octopart is using MPN. But Octopart example is especially interesting because it introduces some way to map Manufacturing Part Numbers to some meaningful numbers used by Octopart.

    Best, Oleg

  • Ed, Oleg it is an interesting discussion and I think we have to differentiate between the two purposes of numbering:
    – the Catalog number is for me in the PLM data model similar to a Product. It has describes a deliverable to the outside world and is used by human beings to communicate. And when humans are involved there is a need to structure a number so people can memorize it.
    – the Part number in PLM is the unique identifier of a set of data defining the properties of a part. The properties can be spread over different systems and the unique identifier is used to have machine-driven connectivity of information. The part links to products, to specifications, to ERP data etc. A non-intelligent number ensures people will look at the understandable information, the properties.
    And the part can have many properties or being linked to other information objects: the catalog number. Here multiple “intelligent” number formats can exist without forcing a company to restructure their data again.

  • beyondplm

    Hi Jos,

    I think you pointed on something very important – it is related to the fact properties are spread across systems and multiple intelligent numbers can be used to connect without restructuring data. It is one of the thing Octopart is doing in the example above by introducing CPL Part Numbers. Another interesting point is to use stable identifiers on the web. IMO Octopart is close to the solution, but not there yet. Maybe future progress with CPL will make it happen.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Peter Yodis

    Interesting Oleg. It makes me think a little about published books and their ISBN numbers. Maybe there is some common ground here…

  • beyondplm

    Pete, you are on the right track! ISBN is a good example. Amazon links to books is another good example of persistent identifiers. I probably write a clarification (especially after the discussion with Ed and Jos) – see comments.

  • Peter Yodis

    Lots of good examples and hopefully more to come. By the way… Upverter + Octopart is really cool. Instant sourcing, costing, and part numbering rolled up into one fantastic view right as you are designing.

  • beyondplm

    Agree – Upverter looks nice. But I haven’t seen many people using it. Do you have any idea why? Is it too new?
    Octopart is doing very good job so far. Let’s hope Altium won’t change it in the future.

  • Peter Yodis

    My guess…its pretty new. Not enough people know about it yet. ECAD market has usually baffled me a bit.

  • zakhomuth

    I think it just takes time. We’re seeing about 350 new engineers make the switch every week right now.

  • beyondplm

    Zak, thanks for this comment. I think the concept of Upverter is great. Clearly Onshape is trying to do the same as you do for MCAD. I’d love to learn more about your customers. Best, Oleg

  • EdA

    The Octopart CPL is misleading in its intent and effect and, for careful engineers, deeply flawed.

    The term “part number” seems confusing, so let’s try to get as precise as possible for this discussion.

    Technical part number (or customer part number): Label used to identify the necessary & sufficient technical requirements to fulfill a customer’s specific purpose.
    The part’s documentation describes the complete technical requirements. In addition to very basic requirements like value,
    package and power, your part may require certain physical, performance, environmental, regulatory, or other characteristics.
    No “intelligent” part numbering scheme could hope to encode all requirements for all applications. The part number may encode a few useful bits that help with narrowing the search (although smart numbers are superfluous with a decent PLM system, and are expensive to maintain).

    Catalog number (Manufacturer Part Number, OEM Part Number, Supplier Part Number, model number, sales number, order number): Label used to identify a specific manufacturer’s set of specifications.
    The part’s datasheet describes the complete technical specifications.
    No “intelligent” catalog number scheme could hope to encode all specifications. Instead, the catalog number may encode a few specifications to distinguish the manufacturer’s parts, but only to the extent the manufacturer needs it. For example, a resistor manufacturer wouldn’t encode an 0805 package if it only sells axial- and radial-lead resistors. It certainly wouldn’t try to burden the catalog number with all specifications, such as maximum reflow temperature, REACH compliance, PPM drift over temperature, storage humidity or mass. That stuff is for the part’s datasheet.

    Approved manufacturer list (“AML”, also approved vendor list or “AVL”): One or more parts, each identified by its manufacturer’s catalog number, that have specifications that meet the technical part number requirements. Each manufacturer part listed on the AML has been judged fully interchangeable for its intended purpose, and may be intermixed in the same inventory bin.

    Octopart CPL: Label used to identify a set of catalog numbers that share similar characteristics. The Octopart CPL attempts to summarize several manufacturer catalog numbers (which are already summaries) into a least common denominator.

    Octopart seems to believe that CPL should be used as a public AML. They say CPLs “refer to a set of parts with different MPNs which satisfy the same function.”

    If the CPL is intended as an AML, then
    1. Octopart guarantees that all manufacturer parts on the CPL list have identical technical specifications, or
    2. Octopart reconciles all technical differences between manufacturer parts on the CPL, and publishes its own datasheet to guarantee minimum technical performance.

    Of course, Octopart does neither. But if naïve users are willing to accept the CPL without question, then it may create interesting problems in user satisfaction, product performance and perhaps legal liability.

    In Octopart’s example part CPL-RES-0603-10K-0.1W, the physical dimensions are a bit different between the Vishay and Yageo 0805 10K resistors. Vishay’s tempco is 100 ppm between 1 and 10 ohms, while Yageo’s is 200 ppm. Vishay specifies its limiting voltage as 75V; Yageo’s maximum is 50V. Each datasheet has specs the other does not. Are these important in most cases? We hope not. But if they do become important, and you need to exclude one, how can this be done if you’ve adopted the CPL as your AML?

    Another common example: if I’m a commercial electronics manufacturer and need an IC, I can accept either a commercial or industrial temperature range … for my application. I can add both ICs to my AVL. Since the Octopart CPL doesn’t have a datasheet nor offer any explicit guarantee of interchangeability, we can’t say whether they list one or both ICs under their CPL. Of course, we could inspect today’s CPL list, but this provides no assurance what will be on the list tomorrow.

    As you state, “However, my point is that when we deal with global connected systems, mapping between “internal numbers” and outside world numbers can be impractical.” But mapping between internal part numbers and outside catalog numbers is not only practical, it’s the essence of component engineering and has been done for decades.

    Octopart admits in their blog they have no problem creating yet another competing numbering “standard”. But they also have no appreciation for the difference between (a) catalog numbers as a search filter, (b) datasheets that actually contain a manufacturer’s part specifications, and (c) technical part numbers that describe customer requirements.

    Regrettably, the Octopart CPL will be adopted by small companies as their AML without understanding the impact on manufacturability, quality and reliability.

    Kind regards.

  • beyondplm


    thanks for sharing your comment! I think, it is very useful for many people reading the blog and trying to define the level of “practicality” of a specific solution. And as you mentioned, it might be different for large and small companies.

    I think, Octopart CPL is an attempt to help small manufacturers and hardware team to manage AML / AVL. For these companies and team to have an established component management system can be impractical.

    Btw, have you heard about any attempt to maintain “public” or subscription based AML/ AVL for small companies and hardware development teams?

    Thanks, Oleg

  • EdA

    CPL cannot help teams manage an AML because an “approved manufacturer list” requires actual approval, not simply inclusion.

    Octopart is a data aggregator, and AFAIK claims no expertise in component engineering. The CPL ignores many datasheet specs and reflects no actual production or field experience. Unless Octopart describes their CPL qualification process, assume that CPL includes any part that has a “close enough” catalog number, regardless of performance, quality or cost.

    In small companies without experienced engineers, the AML is typically outsourced to the contract manufacturer. The CM knows that its reputation relies on choosing good parts. CMs have components engineers and experienced buyers, and know which parts have worked (and which haven’t).

    In small-volume companies using no CM, I’d suggest single-source everything using the selected manufacturers’ datasheets. It’s safer than assuming everything on the CPL is equivalent.

    The largest “public AML” is/was published by the US Government (e.g., MIL, NSN). Its success depended entirely on published customer requirements and huge demand, and the government’s willingness to give up some cost savings for consistently high performance. The critical point is that the customer requirements were standardized, and supplier datasheets conformed — not the other way around.

  • beyondplm


    Thanks for sharing your insight and opinion!

    As I understood from Octopart CPL presentation, the intent is indeed to simplify selection process to some AML-like or standard-like components. Octopart even presented CPL for production and CPL for prototyping. Octopart called it “commonly used” and not AML. It is probably will be semantic only, but who knows.

    Video is here —

    Which makes me think there is some elements of qualification process. It would be interesting to learn if Octopart or any other providers you mentioned MIL, MSN will succeed in establishment of public online AMLs.

  • EdA

    Ah, but which elements? An AML identifies manufacturer parts that fulfill a customer specification. If Octopart is qualifying parts for an imagined “generic customer”, they must explicitly state requirements — a CPL datasheet — so actual customers know whether the part can be used for a particular application.

  • beyondplm

    I guess, you are right. But, I don’t have an answer your question. Maybe it is a good idea to reach out Octopart folks and talk.

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