The challenges of BoM management for small batch manufacturing

The challenges of BoM management for small batch manufacturing


Earlier this year I wrote about 5 important things about PLM for hardware startup. It came down to management of the following product data elements – document records, parts, bill of materials, change tracks and tasks records. While all together are critical, I want to point on parts and BoM management as an absolutely critical for every hardware project – parts and BoM records.

BoM and part information is a core data elements describing the information about what you plan to manufacture. Depends on the complexity of the product, you can have larger or smaller bill of materials.

Most of product manufactured today are not simple collection of mechanical parts as it was decades ago. Modern products such as smart phones, electronic gadgets and other small devices are combined of mechanical parts, plastics, PCBs and software. The diversity of multidisciplinary data creates a high level of data management complexity. In case you are managing product data using spreadsheets, you need to establish an appropriate sections for different BOM elements.

Parts and part numbers are extremely important. Part numbers will help you to manage parts and part lifecycle. It all starts  from your ability to identify part and use it later on in Bill of Materials, change orders, communication with suppliers and ordering system. A very critical aspects of part management is interchangeability. I found it one of the most confusing elements for many people in PLM and BoM management. In a nutshell, interchangeability defines the way a particular part can be replaced with another parts. In a large manufacturing companies part interchangeability is deeply connected to ERP and procurement processes. For small batch manufacturers such as hardware startups it is actually ends up with a problem of part availability. It leads to a severe problem finding part alternatives and issuing change order to contract manufacturer.

Embedded article The Common Parts Library (CPL) Initiative speaks about the challenge of finding part alternatives and how Octopart CPL can help. Octopart is part search engine and information aggregator recently acquired by Electronic CAD developer – Altium. The following passage is a great explanation of the problem with parts availability.

Smaller components, like passives, are easy to put into CAD, but not necessarily easy to keep on hand. You can pick a part on Monday and then discover that it’s out of stock when you need more the following Wednesday. The larger components in complex packages, like high pin-count microcontrollers, can also cause problems. The specific package you want may go in or out of stock at the various distributors. As a result, the initial build phase of a project can be a bit like musical chairs, trying to chase down the stock of a sole or limited-source part.

The Octopart engine allows you to search for a part from most of the available distributors, all in one spot with the same search action. So, if the QFN version of your MCU keeps disappearing from one place, and randomly reappearing in some other place, then Octopart will lead you right to it.

On the surface is seems like an easy problem to solve. But actually, the problem itself is much complicated. It comes down to coordination between hardware company, contract manufacturer and the component ordering. You don’t want to wake-up one morning and discover that components for the next manufacturing batch are discontinued or have long lead time. An appropriate change notification mechanism in your BoM management system can help to solve it. Think about it as a function that coordinate part availability, size of your bath and schedule together. The same function can notify about potential problem. And this is a moment of time when interchangeable part definition in your BoM can help. What you want to prevent at this moment is a long loop into design and engineering to validate acceptance of an alternate components. Although, you cannot prevent 100% of such cases, to decrease it can eliminate potential delays.

What is my conclusion? The problem of BoM management and part interchangeability is critical for small batch manufacturers such as hardware startups and makers. Part obsolescence or long lead time can lead to project schedule failure that can be fatal for your hardware project and company business. Think about delivering products for holidays season or standing up for promised days in your crowdfunding campaign. Therefore to manage BoM and part information together is a critical element of your data management and product lifecycle strategy at very early stage of your project. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Image courtesy of phasinphoto at

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing a digital network-based platform that manages product data and connects manufacturers and their supply chain networksMy opinion can be unintentionally biased.


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