Dr. Strangepart: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the BOM

This system of numbering parts has been around for goodness knows how long. It is no great secret in the auto industry.

A few months ago, a client asked me an interesting question.   That question was how does one reconcile the tension between specific parts vs. the functional use in the product of those parts.    This client was from a major fortune 500 company with a bill of material (BOM) containing thousands of parts on each product.  I was a bit taken aback, at first, by this question.  Although it is a very difficult question and subject, I assumed that most major companies were old hands at dealing with this tension.  I was wrong. 

This reminded me that something that might seem old hat or common sense to one person, might be very interesting to another.  For example, when I graduated from university and went to work for Ford Motor Company, I was taught the Ford part numbering system.  Ford uses a system for parts that is an intelligent part numbering system, in which the part number makes it obvious which product programs , functional type of hardware, and what version of the part is being described.

This system of numbering parts has been around for goodness knows how long.  It is no great secret in the auto industry.  I’m sure every person at Chrysler, GM, and every foreign auto company knows the Ford system of numbering parts.  In fact, apparently, eBay even teaches us about the Ford part numbering system.  It’s very straightforward and makes complete sense.  As a young engineer, fresh out of school, who didn’t know any better, I assumed that every company had a similar intelligent part numbering system.  However, when I gained a little bit more experience and maturity, I realized that Ford’s ingenious but simple system was not so common sense at all.  In fact, most companies I have met in manufacturing have nothing more than a sequential part numbering system that tells nothing about the part for which you were looking.

The point here is not for me to glorify the Ford part numbering system.  I’m sure there are companies with even better and more intelligent part numbering systems out there.  In fact, we don’t even have to go back into the horrors of the group technology fad in the late eighties or early nineties to know that!  No, my point is that relatively simple and logical ways of classifying (but not over classifying things!) on the BOM can really help us in our management of engineering parts and the product.


Eric Hiller is the Managing Partner of Hiller Associates , an operational and strategic consultancy, specializing in Product Cost Management , financial modeling, operations, business planning, software product management, and product development.