Intelligent vs. non-intelligent part numbering – who’s winning the debate?

Colorful numbers

Your part numbering scheme is ultimately adopted by every team with a stake in product development—from design and engineering to operations and manufacturing—so it’s no surprise that choosing the right scheme is a point of debate for many companies.

Most manufacturing circles today still hold on to the belief that intelligent part numbering schemes are better at managing parts than non-intelligent schemes—but this is starting to change. More manufacturers today are finding the effort to maintain descriptive-dependent part numbers not worth the assumed benefit, and are instead turning to automated tools to generate serial part numbers.

While we offer several helpful resources on our website to explain the differences between intelligent and non-intelligent numbering schemes, this blog series is designed to help you identify the part numbering scheme that is right for your unique business needs.

The pros and cons of intelligent part numbering

Intelligent part numbering schemes, which use descriptive details about the part to communicate part characteristics, are designed to help manufacturers save time and avoid confusion. However, assigning a descriptive meaning to each part number may lock you into a system that can’t scale as your variety and quantity of parts increases.

Considering the needs of your business will help you identify whether a descriptive or serial system is right for you.

Advantages Why it works
Efficient searching If you’ve labeled all resistors with part numbers starting with ‘RES’ (for example), you can more easily group similar parts in your design documentation together and swiftly sort among them.
Clear frame of reference for each part Descriptive part numbers specify the group to which every part belongs, so you can immediately see when a part is in the wrong group.
Process efficiency Because parts with similar naming conventions are all handled the same way, you can predefine the change routings, review processes and manufacturing steps for each part number class or category.

Disadvantages Why it’s a challenge
Training and knowledge required The individual responsible for assigning part numbers must understand which group to place the part in and how subgroups interact. Because so much is based on the naming convention, mis-naming a part can jeopardize the product design.
Ongoing maintenance Descriptive part numbers require foresight and continual adjustment as you incorporate new parts into your design. Part group sizes must also be considered in advance so you don’t get stuck with a significant number string 0-9 and an eleventh part.

The pros and cons of non-intelligent numbering schemes

If you don’t think the pros of intelligent part scheming outweigh the cons, your other option is to adopt a non-intelligent scheme. In a non-intelligent part numbering scheme, numbers are chosen systematically (typically serially) and do not provide any information about the part. These systems can be easy to maintain and are easier in some ways because they require less training to learn. Plus, the responsibilities of managing this kind of system can be more easily shared in the organization.

But non-intelligent schemes are far from error-proof. Mistakes can go unnoticed—especially if data entry is involved, and it can be more difficult to manage similar parts.

Advantages Why it works
Time savings It takes very little time and thought to generate a part name because you do not need to know anything about the part to assign a number.
Little training needed New hires do not need training on naming methods and can focus their attention on other tasks.
No single point of failure You can easily have multiple people pull part numbers, which increases efficiency by reducing dependencies.
Disadvantages Why it’s a challenge
Requires a business system to search parts In order to navigate through spreadsheets with randomized part numbers, you need a system that can search for parts based on description, name, size or other relevant attribute .
Potential for errors Numbers do not contain cues to help someone evaluate a part, and do not provide a frame of reference to determine whether the part makes sense in the context of other data.
More work to manage parts Within common prefixes, you’ll need to track additional metadata to define your parts and use that information to search for parts.

Keeping the big picture in mind

If your company has a wide variety of complex parts, multiple product lines or global supply partners, than implementing an intelligent part numbering scheme may be too difficult to maintain. But if assigning descriptive part numbers won’t put a bottleneck in your process and will benefit your teams, than it may be worth the extra effort.

Think about it this way: Can your company afford the time and training necessary to modify an intelligent numbering scheme as you scale? Or is a more appropriate question whether you can afford to have no frame of reference as you look at a list of part numbers?

Considering your unique manufacturing processes, business trajectory and product will help you identify which questions to ask in order to get the answers you need.

To get your gears turning for my next blog post in our series on part numbering, ask yourself—is intelligent part numbering really all that intelligent?

Stay tuned.

Alyssa Sittig

Alyssa played an instrumental role in the development of the Arena Blog and social media channels from 2011 to 2012. Joining the team with a background in public policy, Alyssa was particularly interested in the challenges that manufacturers face both domestically and overseas when taking products to market.