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.


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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.

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