Intelligent part number is dead. Long live meaningful attributes?

Intelligent part number is dead. Long live meaningful attributes?


Part numbers are hard. What started as a simple number and references to a part company usually purchase from a supplier, turned out as a complex data management problem with high level of integration complexity.

Part number is a fundamental element of all processes in manufacturing company – started from design and engineering through the manufacturing, maintenance and services. Part numbers are used across departments of manufacturing companies and globally between manufacturing companies and suppliers.

When drawing boards and cork-boards were a foundation of engineering and manufacturing process management, intelligent part numbers used to link piece of information. Was it ideal? I don’t think so. But it worked for many companies. New database driven software came to improve inefficient processes – MRP, ERP, CAD, PDM, PLM. These systems introduced database-driven approach and new problems.

The nature of database is to use a stable identification system. Intelligent part numbers introduced a high level of complexity to all these systems. The ideally database should use internal ID to identify data. Intelligent part number is not a number that databases can use easily and it is a weak link in a chain of data relationships.

At the same time, the reality of most manufacturing companies is multiple part numbers and variety of intelligent solution to map identification attributes between multiple systems and databases.

Jos Voskuil blog The impact of non-intelligent numbers part numbers came to my attention yesterday evening. He speaks about advantages of non-intelligent part numbers and long term ROI of solutions using such part numbers. At the same time time, he acknowledges the need of human-readable properties that are required to work with non-intelligent part numbers. The following passage speaks about that:

Introducing non-intelligent part numbers has it benefits and ROI to stay flexible for the future. However consider it also as a strategic step for the long-term future when information needs to flow in an integrated way through the enterprise with a minimum of human handling.

So when a company decides to move forward towards non-intelligent part numbers, there are still some more actions to take. As the part number becomes irrelevant for human beings, there is the need for more human-readable properties provided as metadata on screens or attributes in a report.

So, king is dead. Long live the king. You can ask what is a difference between intelligent part number and human readable attributes? Jos brings few examples that explains the idea such as multiple classifications, etc.. But at the same time, he acknowledge that a decision to switch into non-intelligent numbers will impact many downstream systems. If you think about non-intelligent number as a database ID, in order to make all systems work, manufacturing company will have to force the same non-intelligent part number to used as an internal database ID in all systems (PDM, PLM, ERP…) or used a unique key to integrate data across multiple systems.

A potential solution can quickly turn into a discussion of standard set of attributes that can be shared by multiple systems. Standard set of attributes will lead us into debates about product data standards, which endless as we know for the last decades. Recently I shared my thoughts about that in my blog – Why standards is not a silver bullet to create a product innovation platforms? which shares some of my thoughts why data integration is hard and standards is not always the best solution.

What is my conclusion? A real problem is data and process integration. The problem is not internal for every manufacturing company, but also comes outside as manufacturing companies are working with suppliers and service partners. Replacing intelligent part number by non-intelligent database ID doesn’t solve a problem, but moves it to the level of systems used to manage information. The introduction of classification schema used by PLM system won’t solve a problem of data management across multiple departments unless everyone will be using the same system. Even imagine company using PLM system to manage everything, the question about suppliers, contract manufacturers, service and maintenance providers is remaining open. It must be a better way. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg


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