Evolution of Part Numbers in a Digital Future

Evolution of Part Numbers in a Digital Future

Jos Voskuil took Part Number topic to another spin and share his thought about  – Intelligent Part or Product Numbers?  Jos is thoughtful as usual, giving us a perspective on the difference between Parts and Products as well as ideas how to threat identification of both. And I’m in agreement with Jos – in digital world, every single piece of hardware should have an Id to identify it in a unique way.

As parts are company internal business objects, I would like to state if the company is serious about becoming a digital enterprise, parts should have meaningless unique identifiers. Unique identifiers are the link between discipline or application specific data sets. For example, in the image below, where I imagined attributes sets for a part, based on engineering and manufacturing data sets.

Apart from the unique ID, there might be a common set of attributes that will be exposed in every connected system. For example, a description, a classification and one or more status attributes might be needed.

After all, this is what different enterprise systems are doing for manufacturing company – managing information connected to a specific Id. At the same time, I found hard to differentiate between Parts and Products. What is part for one company is a product for somebody else. In a modern distributed world, to differentiate between Parts and Products is difficult and almost impossible to separate, in my view. But to have meaningful description about Product (Part) name is important. I think Jos and I are in a violent agreement about managing parts internally and products externally by any manufacturing company.

However, my favorite passage and the most important point is about trying to fix the past.

Of course if you are aiming for a full digital enterprise, and I think you should, do not waste time fixing the past. In some situations, I learned that an external consultant recommended the company to rename their old meaningful part numbers to the new non-intelligent part numbering scheme. There are two mistakes here. Renumbering is too costly, as all referenced information should be updated. And secondly as long as the old part numbers have a unique ID for the enterprise, there is no need to change. The connectivity of information should not depend on how the unique ID is formatted.

The discussion suggested by Jos made think about trajectories of Part Numbers in digital enterprise.

Unique identifiers

It is absolutely important to use unique identifiers to manage Parts. It can be meaningful or meaningless, but it must be unique at least for your organization. Whatever you have, must be evaluated to prove uniqueness of identification. Revisions and versions can be used in engineering, but I can see them as a thing that can only be used for work-in-progress work. Everything “released” should have Part Number and be uniquely identified. You can decide to include version or revision in such identification, but then it must be treated in a special way.

Part Numbers in Digital World

Digital world is a connected system (web) of linked documents. Add devices (IoT) and you are moving into new digital manufacturing reality. These products and documents have meaning to humans (like Samsung phone in Jos’ example), but little to no meaning for computer software. Google is an example of the system that can connect meaningful world of humans to pages. However the new world of digital identification is emerging. Simple URIs can be used to identify many things. Think about the following URI as my id – https://www.linkedin.com/in/olegshilovitsky/. In the same way you can think about the following URI (https://www.mcmaster.com/#91251a051/) as an Id for part in McMaster catalog. The similar things are emerging in variety of forms in a digital world. The simple URI is a digital authority and can be used in variety of applications. An example is GTIN. Major search engines are supporting schema.org. If you don’t know what is that, check my article – How real to develop Global Part Number system.

What is my conclusion? Manufacturing companies cannot ignore digital world anymore. Identification is the most fundamental issue that can bring companies to digital world, but also can slow down them to the death. The complexity of digital transformation for many manufacturing companies is similar to building an airplane and trying to fly it at the same time. Companies should be able to keep doing what they do now and introduce new digital identification and methods into their practice. A lot of work for IT and CIOs to make it right. Adoption of new digital identity forms can simplify many processes and systems and eliminate complex mapping systems used in enterprise integration. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Want to learn more about PLM? Check out my new PLM Book website.

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups and supply chain. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.

Photo credit Mountain Home Air Force Base


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  • Doug J

    Voskuil is right about the product / part number distinction. Product number is customer facing and usually heavily influenced by marketing (for example, a catalog number or website model number). Part numbers are controlled by engineering. There are different considerations for how each is maintained and they need some independence from a change management perspective.

  • beyondplm

    Doug, very good point! But do you have Part Number to a product? If no, then how engineering is identifying product? If yes, Product number is just another characteristic such as “marketing and sales description”. Which is by the way very important, but it is not they way identify everything and link between systems – another example Jos was bringing up .

  • Lee Perrin

    One company’s part is another company’s product. However, a part is a part. Whether it be an end item or an assembly or a detailed part it must have a part number and it must appear on a BOM. As it changes and becomes non interchangeable with its last iteration, it must increment to a new dash number. There may be a drawing rev letter associated with the change, but the part must stand on its own with its dash number.

    Sometimes a customer keeps its own reference number for the part they are buying from you. I recommend that you maintain your own numbering sequence, but you may also decide to mark the part with your customer’s part number if they insist. Your own part number must be on the product for your own tracking.

    I would never go back and re-identify anything you have made previously. It should always keep its original part number. If you go to a non intelligent numbering sequence, you must consider if you want to extend that to hardware parts, software items (they are parts too), and possibly documentation.

    Interesting topic Oleg. Thanks!

  • beyondplm

    Lee, thank you for sharing your perspective and the way you manage Part Numbers! Make a total sense to me – always make Part Number that goes to BOM and it is used for identification regardless if this an internal component of configurable item (product).

  • Doug J

    Product is what is seen and ordered by customer. Part number is controlled by engineering and used to fulfill the order. Part number can be used for more detailed stocking control, for example, if you have two contact manufacturers vendors supplying the same product, but you want to maintain traceability through shipment to end customer. Also can modify part numbers for change/breakpoint contol of inventory, while keeping te product number the same to the end customer. So they are not necessarily 1 to 1.

  • beyondplm

    I agree with your case. So, if you manufacturing the same product using 2 different CMs, you might have 2 different part number for each of them.