Part Numbers. Intelligent & Dumb. Can we have both?

Part Numbers. Intelligent & Dumb. Can we have both?


I think, most of PLM people are considering the fight about pros and cons of intelligent numbers is only related to product development and manufacturing. But the problem is more generic. It is about every number in enterprise software. Account number, order number, support ticket, etc. Thanks for Ed Lopategui that brought my attention to the following article – IT’s dumb fight over intelligent part numbers by David Taber. The article brings an extended perspective on why usage of easy memorable numbers can be beneficial. Read the article and draw your opinion.

According to David, new technology and cost trend can help us to afford to have both numbers. It will preserve internal identification to be referenced in databases, but generate significant and intuitive number for end users. Here is the passage that explains that:

Whether it’s a part number, an account number, an order number or an identifying number for nearly any real object, the users ask for a number that isn’t abstract, arbitrary and essentially meaningless. They ask for numbers that are short, significant and “intuitive” for the business user.

What has changed is the cost of storage and computation: redundancy and denormalization is essentially free, as long as it’s automatically maintained. Given that magnificent (and continuing) declining cost curve, we can now afford to have it both ways. We’ll keep with the impossibly long (and hard to remember) identifying numbers/strings that IT has already built, and those will be used as the foreign keys for all the tech. But now we can add a number designed just for humans, and which all areas of our tech are told to ignore.

I found the idea interesting and certainly applicable in some places. It made me think back about my yesterday article where I discussed the idea of part number transparency. Clearly, intelligent part number as proposed by David Taber’s article can provide a potential answer to the question what number should be displayed for better user experience.

The idea of having both numbers is fascinating. I can certainly see how PLM and ERP systems can “generate” useful Part Number based on some internal attributes, properties and other related information. At the same time, system will keep dumb number and use it for relationships in BoM, product configurations and ECOs.

At the same time, it made me concerned to think about the “temporary” nature of significant number as it proposed in the article. I guess the idea can work for account numbers. System can generate easy memorable account number that can be used in support, sales and related activities. What about Part Number that used for product configurations, bill of materials, component databases and many other places? How comfortable engineers will be with the fact each part number in BoM can be technically different in a year.

What is my conclusion? The low cost storage and computation in modern technologies can solve many problems of data management. Very often we ask for the wrong things and, as a result, getting wrong answers. It seems to me engineers that are asking for significant part numbers are trying to open the door that already open. It is up to the PLM, ERP and other systems to realize how to implement it in the way intelligent numbers will be displayed for users and strong references will be used to preserve data relationships and consistency. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


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