Are Part Numbers Too Smart for Their Own Good?

For decades smart parts numbers have defined what & where parts fit into a design. But are part numbers to smart for their own good? 

Thomasnet, part numbers, CAD, technologyFor decades, manufacturers have used “smart” or “intelligent” part numbers — that is, descriptive part numbers that contain explicit indicators in the part-number string itself, indicating something about the name of the part itself, the product it is used in, physical characteristics of the part or other data points. One of the advantages of such descriptive part numbers has been that they allow employees to quickly identify a part and its purpose merely by reading the number.

As a report from Arena, a Foster City, Calif.-based developer of product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions, indicates, in the part number RES-100-0003 for a resistor, “100” could stand for resistance in ohms and “0003” could be a suffix indicating the part’s position in a series.

However, some technology experts are warning that the use of such descriptive part numbers is not necessarily so “smart,” and that they could drag down productivity in today’s fast-changing manufacturing environments. A smarter tactic, they assert, is to employ auto-generated “insignificant” or “non-intelligent” part numbers and let information about the part reside in a database.

According to Dennis Gilhooley, senior consultant at Ultra Consultants, a specialist firm in enterprise resource planning (ERP) based in Chicago, descriptive part numbers’ pre-computer-era origins might not be of as practical use today. “People would embed special coding into the part numbers,” said Gilhooley, in an interview with ThomasNet News, “using a three-character prefix associated with the type of material or vendor or customer or something like that.”

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As an example, one of Ultra Consultants’ clients is a large manufacturer of appliances that tries to embed multiple codes into its part numbers, including the company initials, the color, size, and other descriptors. What he has observed is that with many clients, “the numbers have continued to grow and grow” until they become hard to manage.

The long strings increase the likelihood of errors. “Between two parts, if there’s only one number in a 15-digit code that’s different, it can be easy to pick the wrong part,” Gilhooley said. “If they’re clearly different, that’s a lot less likely to happen.”

The best practice in part numbering today, Gilhooley wrote recently, is to assign each part an easier-to-manage sequence of five or six letters and numbers without any particular meaning. Since organizations manage their manufacturing operations with digital tools like ERP or PLM, insignificant part numbers  “can easily be integrated into a parts database that can be accessed by materials handling, production, engineering, production control, purchasing or sales.” In the database, any number of fields can be used to identify and describe a part with as much detail as needed.

This approach reduces training costs, as nobody has to learn how to decode part numbers. Knowledge about a part doesn’t depend on the memory or experience of an individual employee, who might not be available when an identification is needed.

Another problem with descriptive numbering is that the description can become out of date and irrelevant over time. Individual parts can have their own life cycles; if a part has been identified according to the product, what happens if that product is discontinued but the part continues to be used in a newer product? Or what if a manufacturer changes vendors and the part number contains the name of the vendor that originally provided the piece?

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This article was originally published on ThomasNet News Industry Market Trends  and is reprinted with permission from Thomas Industrial Network.  For more stories like this please visit Industry Market Trends.