Intelligent Numbering: What’s the Great Part Number Debate?

What's in a part number? That which we call a part by any other number should assemble as easily? Every company struggles with defining part numbers. Should you use an intelligent numbering system that embeds important identifying information or go with easy-to-mange generic numbers? Choosing between these opposing methodologies might seem intimidating; solid arguments exist for either approach. Crowning a winner is not going to be constructive, but understanding how the underlying issues affect your company certainly will be.


Creation and Data Entry

Generating a new number should be easy, even for the new intern. Nothing is easier than a system-assigned generic number. PDM/PLM systems default to a generic numbering system, but that is neither a recommendation nor a limitation. Most modern systems can accommodate intelligent numbering without heavy customization and/or manual entry. If you choose to embed intelligent information, you are trading the simplicity of creating a part number for a downstream benefit, so weigh that benefit carefully. Consider the part number is often what you start with on new design.

How much will you know at that stage and how certain are you about it? Could that information change in the future? Such considerations will help determine what information, if any, is truly practical to embed in an intelligent number.

Longevity and Legacies

You want your part numbers to last. Intelligent numbering systems tend to break down over time, especially if the intelligence is used for complex categorization. It probably won't be tomorrow, or next week, but a couple of years from now, someone will likely be staring at a screen and shaking their fist at you because something doesn't quite fit. The more complicated the system, the higher the likelihood it will break down. But well-planned systems can last: vehicle VIN numbers lasted 30 years before requiring minor revision in 2008. Once again, this is another balancing act. But before you get too caught up on planning for infinite longevity, keep in mind all of it may come crashing down come a merger or acquisition. Also, don't forget about the part numbers you already have; you just might be stuck with them.


Readability is absolutely critical, people need to quickly parse through a large amount of part numbers every day and short-term retention is important. Generic numbering tends to be less readable without some designed structure or variation (i.e. breaking up long series of numbers with letters or dashes at fixed positions). It's the reason you might remember a telephone number with an area code, but not your license plate, despite a smaller namespace. Intelligent numbers can have readability issues for the very same reasons, or if they just get too long.


Two parts with the same number is trouble. Some argue that only generic numbers ensure uniqueness - but that's not really true. You can get the same uniqueness guarantee with the right PDM/PLM system for intelligent numbering. Generic numbers, which tend to be shorter, can actually increase the chance of overlap with respect to mergers and acquisitions or cause confusion with similar supplier part numbers. Nothing ensures uniqueness in this scenario, but the larger the namespace the lower the chance for a collision. But once again longer part numbers degrade readability.


Every time a part is handled, sorted, searched, or otherwise used an interpretation cost is involved. In other words, it's the time needed to understand whether you are dealing with the right part. Intelligent part numbers can reduce this interpretation cost, provided the user understands the identification system. In the right conditions, parts can be recognized at a glance. Take caution, however. If the cost of maintaining the intelligent system exceeds the interpretation cost, it's self-defeating. Generic numbers, on the other hand, can increase interpretation costs, since differences have to be queried in the system. Generic part interpretation can be enhanced with classification systems, but they also add cost.

Balancing all these diverse factors is difficult, because no solution is optimal for every company. Here are some final tips to help you make prudent decisions:

  • Understand your PDM/PLM system part number generation capabilities.
  • Understand the limitations of any other systems that interact with your parts.
  • Go through every activity that requires interpreting part numbers and understand what system access is available, and how the interfaces work. This will provide a good basis for your interpretation cost.
  • Understand how easy/difficult it is for a new employee to interpret a part number.

What Do You Think?

Which part numbering scheme do you use? Do you wish you could deploy another system instead? Why? Let us know.


guide to CAD file management

Struggling with CAD file management?  

Unmanaged CAD data can lead to wasted time and  expensive mistakes, but traditional PDM and PLM solutions are too costly for many companies. This guide, written by industry analyst Jim Brown, will help you find the solution that fits your needs.

guide to CAD file management





  • beyondplm

    This is a very important topic and people are debating it endlessly… In fact, intelligent numbers is another way to look on classification. So, do we need classification? I believe the answer is ye.

    My last take on Part numbers and openness is here >> The future of Part Numbers and Unique identification is here –>

    IMHO, identification is very connected to openness of data.

  • Pingback: Part Numbers are hard. How to think about data first?()

  • beyondplm

    Ed, great points about Part Numbering approach!

    This is a very complicated topic. Companies are trying to apply their Part Numbering strategies to multiple applications and enterprise systems. Some of them are internal and some applications and processes are dependent on other companies and external systems. IMHO, a better strategy is to focus on creating of sustainable long term part numbering (you can call it intelligent, extended classification, whatever…) The point is that data (including Part Numbers as a core identification element) has longer lifetime compared to enterprise apps. So, I’d recommend focusing on data first. More about it here —

    Best, Oleg

  • Mark Valenti

    We use a semi intelligent numbering system. Our system uses a unigue 3 digit prefix followed by a 5 digit sequential number. 100-10000 Top level assembly, 160-10001 Mechanical sub assembly, 200-10000 detail drawing custom part, 201-10001 detail drawing of commercial part modified.

    • Jimmy

      What is the nature of business of your company?

  • Scott Rodgers

    If it’s a component that will be regularly reused and/or comes from a family of similar, I’d advocate an intelligent system identifying in it.

    One supplier lists a lot of parts using a 4 digit number, and I can never remember what they are.
    Another supplier lists most of their part numbers from family, dimension, dimension, which is so much easier for locating the part I want to add to the assembly.

  • Jimmy

    We use project based numbering.
    AAA-type of machine
    bbb1-customer initials+’n’th machine
    100-sub assembly type/location in machine
    0x-sub assembly numbering
    0y-part number

    We make customised cleaning machine for hardisk, electronic, automotive industry.

  • JeffMirisola

    In all the years I’ve been in manufacturing (pushing 19), I have yet to be introduced to an intelligent part number system that was actually intelligent or one that was easily decipherable without some sort of cipher.
    As an example, I had the “pleasure” of being hired by a company that had 3 “intelligent” systems in place. Why? The first two didn’t work, so…

  • Pingback: The Benefits of Intelligent Part Numbering()

  • Ken Schnautz

    Our company has been around for about twelve years, and during the first ten, we had all sorts of part numbers passing through engineering, inventory, and sales. We had part numbers, assembly numbers, drawing numbers… all based on job numbers, or product names, supplier item names or numbers. It was a mess.

    About two years ago, (when I started) we finally got deeply involved in engineering design and recognized the need to make a company-wide item numbering scheme. After a few intense debates and many meetings later, we settled on a generic sequential numbering plan. Each item is assigned an eight digit number- starting at 10000001 and counting up.

    All items share the same pool of item numbers. This is where it gets both ugly and beautiful. Parts are items. Assemblies are items. Drawings are items. Documents, forms, templates, finished goods, even electronic firmware, physical media, and printed drawings. They ALL are created equal using sequential item numbers.

    There is absolutely no room for inference when reading a part number. If I gave you a number, e.g., 10001221 – you don’t know what it is. It could be a drawing, or a part. You have to look it up! The best tool to date has been Arena PLM (sorry… I don’t plan on making this an Arena commercial). It’s a cloud-based service that we use to assign our part numbers, track BOMs, ECOs, revisions, file references… you get the gist.

    Approximately 2500 item numbers later (1.5 years), we’re glad we made the switch. I have to admit, I’ve spent days explaining the scheme during the first few months to various groups (engineering, purchasing, sales…) but it’s been a great fit so far. Having the new PLM has forced us to take better control of our documentation. Nothing leaves engineering unless it’s released in the PLM system.

    Granted, the PLM system has a few kinks (inability to add old-revision parts to new BOMs), but that is a separate issue that we will have to resolve by creating new items in lieu of revisions.

    All in all, the move to generic item numbering and the fact that ALL items (drawings, parts, assemblies, media, etc.) share a pool of item numbers has been the best thing to happen to our company’s document control. The only complaint I’ve heard lately is that we should have chosen seven digits instead of eight. :)

    —- and for those that are curious, we are a industrial product development group. So we do product designs that include custom welded metal, machined metal, injection-molded plastic, machined plastic, cable assemblies/harnesses, printed circuit board assemblies (we have part numbers for each pcb, resistor, capacitor, IC, …), software, firmware, … the works.—

  • Nick Broekhuizen

    I use a intelligent number system. I’m a consultant engineer for various clients doing machine design.
    My number system is as follows:
    XXX -Project or Client number
    YYYY – first level of project , normal use say 0000 total assembly
    0100 – first level sub assy
    0101- second level sub assy if more levels are required just add 3 or 4 digits
    ex ABC-0101-0010.
    The last three digits is a document identification. ex detail drawing 202.
    The part number will be without the AAA’s
    Detail drawing ABC-0101-0010-202
    The system is extremely flexible, id sub levels are required just add numbers to the end before the document identification.
    Works for me.


  • Pingback: These Aren’t the PLM Search Engines You’re Looking For… | E(E)()