Any manufactured product is made out of different parts, which can number in the single digits, or the hundreds, or the thousands. Because the company needs to manage and track these parts through the entire product development lifecycle, part numbers are created as a standard method for referencing parts. It’s not unlike the number beneath the barcode on that carton of milk, or the SKU you might use to search a product on an online retailer.
A bill of materials (BOM) includes these part numbers, along with other information, such as the name, to give a comprehensive view into the components that make up the final manufactured good. Without part numbers, simple miscommunications about a part’s name could end in disaster. Luckily, a product lifecycle management (PLM) system will not only help you create part numbers, but do so in the method that makes sense to your business.
Why does it matter?
Choosing part numbers is not as easy as choosing something entirely random, or banging on the keyboard—there are two strategies to creating part numbers: non-intelligent, or intelligent. Of course, if you pick the former it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong—pick what works best for your company.
Sometimes also called non-significant, this method usually means that new items in the BOM are giving an iterative part number, meaning that it’s one higher than the part that came before it. A plastic component might be 0003472, and a screw might be 0003473. In this strategy, there’s no connection between the part and its number—it’s context-less.
There are pros and cons to this system, but many like it because it’s fast, and employees don’t need training or knowledge of the part in order to assign it a number. Anyone with access to the BOM can add parts and generate part numbers, which means the company isn’t waiting around for a certain key player to take control. That said, the lack of context sometimes equates to difficult maintenance, since there’s no way to get full understanding of a part based on its number alone. More metadata will be necessary in order to make that clear. Data entry can always go faulty as well, leading to parts that are mis-numbered, which could go unnoticed for too long in the product development lifecycle.
Also referred to as significant, the intelligent strategy involves using descriptive details to help provide context for the part. Oftentimes, it includes acronyms or other symbolic language. For example, certain length screw might be given the part number FAS-10-08-PP-0001, where “FAS” stands for “fastener,” 10 equates to the length in millimeters, 08 equates to the thread pitch in millimeters, and the 0001 is an iterative count of equivalent parts.
Ford is famous for its complex part numbering scheme, which includes information about what decade the part is for, which vehicle, which options (sedan vs. hatchback) and the general location of the part in the vehicle (anything 6000-6999 is engine parts, for example). With intelligent strategies, companies can get as complex as they’d like, although, similar to the non-intelligent route, there can be downsides to fanciful systems.
With intelligent systems, training is often necessary to teach new employees how to properly use the scheme—if they don’t do the work correctly, it could lead to an incorrectly-numbered part that causes issues down the road. A specialist or key stakeholder, someone who is uniquely qualified in the part numbering scheme, might be necessary to ensure compliance, which would create inefficiencies if they’re overburdened and can’t make additions quickly. Even if a company navigates these issues, they might find themselves up against issues caused by the strategy’s limitations. In Ford’s case, for example—what happens if they develop more than 1,000 engine parts? The 7000s are reserved for transmission and clutch parts. An alternative needs to be developed, sometimes after mistakes have already been made.
That said, intelligent systems make searching a breeze compared to sequential or non-intelligent system—imagine how easy it would be to find all the fasteners in the BOM by simply searching for “FAS.” At-a-glance contextual clues can go a long way in helping engineers catch errors that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. A plant floor employee might be able to quickly see that a particular fastener is too short, and was mislabeled, whereas if all they had was a six-digit number, they wouldn’t have the same visibility. Intelligent systems also enable better change management—many companies attach an “A” to the end of the part number for an initial version, B for the first revision, and so on.
The good news is that today’s PLM systems allow for companies to follow either non-intelligent or intelligent strategies in whatever method works best for them. Before the product development lifecycle moves into design, companies should prepare themselves by getting familiar with their PLM tools’ part naming capacities and how they make either option easier. The BOM is a complex document, but the right strategies can make it not only navigable, but productive to the product’s entire lifecycle.
- Tyler Beck, Technical Marketing