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Intelligent Part Numbers

Do you have "Intelligent" Part Numbers? The question whether Material Numbers should be random or intelligent is in many companies dividing people. Learn about the pro's and con's and make an informed decision.

What is a Part or Material number with syntax?

A number with syntax is a number that is not purely random or sequential in a range, but where one or more digits in the number include a meaning – a syntax! Sometimes they are referred to as ‘Intelligent Part Numbers’, but as this article will show there is nothing intelligent about such

A short analogy

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 the phone companies made good money by selling such popular numbers.

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 the same development to take place with regards to material numbers, but this hasn’t happened. We have never had better tools to search and find parts in our ERP and PLM systems using fast indexing engines, classification and even geometric search. However, a high number of companies still use and create numbers with syntax.

Disadvantages of 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.

Worse, the numbering schemes tend to grow out of their ranges over time leading 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 would seem 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.

No rule without exception

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

  1. Spaces or dashes do increase the readability of long numbers and reduce errors. This is important for barcode, QR codes and RFID. Additional digits for checksums also reduce errors.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. When refurbishing and reusing valuable but defect materials returned from customers, it is essential to ensure that these parts are not mixed with brand new parts. It is also important to recognise that the value of the defective parts differs from that of the new stock. Some ERP systems have a specialised functionality for this, but it is complex and not much help if renovating suppliers and third-party logistics don’t have it. In such cases, it makes sense to add a post-fix like 4711DEF for the defective part or 4711GOLD for a gold-renovated part.

What to do

Don’t just scrap all syntax! Remember to map the numbering schemes and use this mapping for introducing an improved classification or, if you already have classified the materials, to verify this classification.

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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