Intelligent Material Numbers – outdated habit or good practice?

Intelligent or non-intelligent Part Numbers. What are the pro's and con's?
Estimated reading time: 5 min

What is an Intelligent Part or Material number?

Intelligent Material Numbers are numbers that includes a meaning (syntax) in stead of just being a non-significant number. The trend in PLM systems is towards using only non-significant numbers. However, the discussion about which approach to follow often become emotional and not based on the pro’s and cons. This article will help you consider the pro’s and con’s and emphasize some situations where significance in the number still may make sence.

The analog legacy

analog telephone

Before the mobile phones and smartphones became ubiquitous, we used land-line phones and had to enter a 6-10 digit number to make a call. Numbers that were easy to remember, such as 33 33 33 or 10 11 10, were valuable and popular.

This all changed with the arrival of smartphones. Today, the numbers for my family are in my ‘favourites list’ and I no longer know them off by heart. If I need to call any business, I search online and press ‘dial’ without even a cursory glance at the actual number.

One would expect that this digital approach had also been taken for material numbers. However, many companies are still using intelligent material numbers.

This is despite the fact, that powerful tools for searching and finding the right materials in our ERP and PLM are available. The systems use fast indexing engines, classification and even geometric search. (See our article on speeding search in SAP).

The cost of intelligent material numbers with syntax

However, these so-called ‘intelligent part numbers’ come with a high cost.

First of all, it takes time to learn the syntax rules and the learning curve is steep.  Especially if the company is a result of several mergers or if each department has a local syntax it takes time. Learning the syntax constitutes a barrier for cross-functional collaboration connected PLM across the value chain.

Worse, the numbering schemes tend to grow out of their ranges. Over time this leads to the creation of ever more complex syntax.

Thirdly, as the demographic changes and the experienced Master Data Specialists from Generation X are about to retire, the cost of relying on ‘intelligent’ syntax will become more pronounced. It seems that Generation Y and Z employees are more prone to change jobs, compared to Generation X, and the syntax will have to be taught over and over again.

So, if you have syntax in your material numbers, it is time to retire this costly habit. It is far better to invest in better and consistent naming of parts. This can for example be achieved by naming parts automatically using classification.

Situations when syntax in material number can be good practice

However, there are a few cases where intelligent material numbers with syntax may make sense:

  1. Product Variants
  2. Familarity of different design revisions
  3. Defect and refurbished materials
  4. Delimiters in the number

Product variants

Syntax for reference of variant numbers to the configurable number, e.g. if the 150% material is 4711 the variant may become 4711-0000001, 4711-0000002 etc. where the 0000001 is only a counter and does not include any logic from the characteristics of the variant. This clearly emphasises the relationship between the variants, which may be beneficial.

Familarity of different design revisions

Syntax for reference to the revision – CAD and PLM systems use revisions, but traditional ERP systems don’t. This often leads to wrong decisions and arguments on whether the new and old design is interchangeable (form, fit and function).
The easy solution is usually to retain the material number, but that leads to confusion in the supply chain.
One way to avoid this is by introducing the revision number as a part of the material number. By doing this, any new revision will have a new material number, and then the focus will be on whether the old material number (revision) can be used up, reworked or has to scrapped.
A special case is when a non-serialised material is decided to be serialised to improve traceability. This is a relative easy operation for small companies. However, this is a huge challenge in global companies where materials constantly are on multiple stocks, in transit or in production. The most robust way to introduce serialisation in global companies is to introduce a new material number for the serialised material. To reduce the effort of updating documentation, introducing syntax might be helpful.

Defect and refurbished material

It is essential to ensure that valuable defective parts are not mixed with newly produced or refurbished parts. This is obvious for quality reasons, but it also impacts finance since the value of the defective parts differs from that of the new or refurbished parts. Instead of having a completely different material number for e.g. the defective part, it makes sense to add a post-fix. Anybody in the value chain will be able to understand and manage that:

  • 4711 is a newly produced part
  • 4711DEF is a defective 4711 part
  • 4711GOLD is a “gold” renovated 4711 part

Some ERP systems, e.g. SAP, has specialised functionality for distinguishing new, defective, refurbished materials on the same material number. However, this is not necessarily the best solution. The entire value-chain must be considered. Manufacturing Execution Systems, third-party warehouse systems or sub-suppliers are seldomly able to support the same material number having different meanings. Instead consider to keep multiple material numbers including significant information.

Delimiters in the number

Spaces or dashes do increase the readability of long numbers and reduce errors. Additional digits for checksums also reduce errors.

What to do

Don’t just immediately scrap the intelligent material numbers! Existing numbering schemes may help to introduce, improve or verify the classification – do the mapping be fore you start the transition towards non-significant material numbers.

If you want to know more, we’d be happy to help and to show you how to reduce the use of syntax in your material numbers.

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About the Author

Erik Løber

Erik Løber

Erik has a holistic view and understanding of business value chains based on hands-on experience from Shop Floor as well as from R&D and executive level. He has since 2005 developed and implemented LEAN New Product Introduction (NPI) processes to reduce time-to-market. He has led the development of detailed IT solutions to support the NPI and to bridge the gap between R&D and operations. Erik has competences in Strategic Innovation Management, Product Life-cycle Management (PLM), process and system design and detailed information structures. Mail: Tel: +4522235655

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