The topic of Intelligent Part Numbers is near and dear to the hearts of many people in the engineering, manufacturing, and PLM community. My OpenBOM article a few days ago raised a lot of questions, discussions, and opinions on LinkedIn. Check this out- I found them very interesting and insightful. This is not the first time I’m writing about Part Numbers over the years and to my surprise, the story repeats again. It made me think about what is the reason behind that. What causes engineers and IT managers to repeatedly bringing the point of the value of “intelligent” numbers again and again?
Let’s start from the magic of the name – intelligent numbers. Although the term is widely used and recognizable by everyone in engineering and manufacturing, the term is confusing. Because there is not much intelligence in so-called “intelligent part numbers”. I usually recommend calling them semantic or meaningful part numbers. Because that’s the thing – if you know the semantics of the part number “designed’ by your organization, you can figure out what is behind the number – assembly, part, a specific product, vendor, materials, revision, and many other things. I’ve seen companies with 16 significant digits in the part number – every single digit means something!
In the following passage, I put a summary of the pros and cons of using intelligent and dumb (just numbers) for Part Numbers.
Pro: Allow items to be easily recognized by their PN, often they may move through a process like change control faster. It may be easier to search for and find in digital systems. Comfortable and familiar with team members.
Con: Maintenance of the part numbering system is an ongoing (costly) activity. Adding a new product code or other metadata to meet the needs of an unanticipated part category can be expensive and time-consuming.
A simple change to a part may cause a part number change!! It can be very expensive to propagate that change through a product structure!
Just numbers (not dumb, but efficient)
Pro: Easy. Fast. Literally no maintenance of the part numbering system. Easy to “dispense” the next part number without analyzing or knowing the properties of the part. Little institutional knowledge required. Low training demands. Lower cost.
Con: Requires a flexible and organized open system to manage BOMs and product structure. In order to be useful, related part information (metadata) must remain associated with the part number and be retrievable by all members of the extended enterprise.
With these pros and cons in mind, I came to the conclusion of why engineers and companies are still voting for the usage of semantically meaningful Part Numbers.
Once a company decides on a Part Number schema, it is very hard to change. That could be a reason why many companies stuck with existing semantically meaningful numbers. Making a change means a lot because Part Number (especially a meaningful one is a foundation for many existing processes. Change is hard…
2- Use in different documents (eg. Production, Purchasing, etc)
Almost the outcome of the previous one, companies often like to use meaningful numbers in different paper or electronic documents outside of the company or specific IT process. For example to print it for the usage on the shop floor, procurement, or anything else. If such a document doesn’t have enough space for descriptors, the use of semantically meaningful numbers is guaranteed.
3- Afraid of system lock
What if the system we use to manage part numbers and related metadata will stop, disappears, or will become unavailable? I’ve heard it multiple times. How would we know what Part Number means? In most of these situations, companies are religiously bringing all data about parts and products in their CAD systems. For most of them, CAD (files) is a single source of truth. While CAD systems are also kind of “lock”, most engineers are tolerating the dependency on CAD systems as something that nobody is trying to change these days.
4- “Smart” integration
Silos. When a company has multiple systems, the integration of data between is an art. It is often manual, but once some algorithms and integrations are created, they often rely on some codes and semantically meaningful Part Numbers are these “connection” points that helping companies to coordinate isolated systems.
What is my conclusion?
Companies have complex relationships with data management technologies. It is the root cause of why “intelligent” or semantically meaningful part numbers are still in use in many companies. The day engineers and manufacturing companies will feel safe to rely on data management to manage information about products and connect all dependent systems in a connected and integrated digital thread, will be the last day semantically meaningful Part Numbers will make sense. And until that day, we will continue to hear about battles of how to set up a Part Number that engineers and other people in the organization will be able to understand without the system. Just my thoughts…
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 networks. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.