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A Trip down the Intelligent Part Numbering Rabbit Hole

rabbit holeNow that I’ve previously given you a high-level analysis of the pros and cons of intelligent and non-intelligent part numbering, I can tell you how I really feel. While well-intentioned, intelligent numbering schemes can be a tricky rabbit hole—hostile to growth for a variety of reasons. A good part numbering scheme is nimble. It generates part numbers efficiently and can be maintained without too much brainwork. In other words, it’s the opposite of intelligent part numbering. Because intelligent schemes are descriptive in nature, it takes more effort to add new parts into the system, and to maintain the system as you grow.

To generate a new part number, you’ll need to understand the part, including any specific features or functionalities that go into the name, before determining where it fits into your intelligent scheme. Intelligent part numbering schemes are inherently harder to modify than non-intelligent ones since all new parts need to be understood and defined within the context of other parts.

What happens if I fall down the intelligent part numbering rabbit hole?

1. You’ll drain resources. Intelligent part numbers are easily susceptible to descriptive clutter—becoming very confusing, hard to read, and impossible to remember. Truncating descriptive terms into abbreviations becomes difficult to keep straight and requires continual employee training and monitoring. Imagine, for instance, trying to recall whether a part number was intended to specify length then gauge, or the opposite. Does ‘R-12-06’ mean the part is a 12-gauge or that it is half an inch? Small misinterpretations like this one can have unpredictable, and disastrous, consequences.

2. Small design modifications can cause confusion. When the time comes to modify an intelligently named part—whether it’s adding in a new description to the part number that wasn’t necessary before, or modifying the specs of a part—the change can invalidate or conflict with the part numbers that already exist. It’s hard to know just how descriptive to get when creating intelligent numbers—and almost no one gets it completely right the first time around. Let’s say you have a 4 gauge, 8-inch green cable. You number the cable ‘G-8-4’ accordingly and use the same scheme for the 200 other cables in your product. Fast forward a few weeks and you discover you can now buy the same cable, but with shielding. Integrating the new cable into your product will make it better, but will force you to update your cable numbering scheme to indicate ‘shielded’ or ‘unshielded.’ You’re in a lose-lose situation—forced to choose between foregoing a smart part upgrade because you’re locked into your numbering scheme, or wasting time updating old numbers. Each time you need to add a new parameter to your numbering scheme, you will have to go back and update the numbers for all affiliated parts, dramatically decreasing the sustainability of your system.

3. You’ll be stuck with an outdated system. Like everything else, manufacturing is going digital—just look at the increased use of QR codes on the factory floor.  This development will soon make descriptive part numbers completely unnecessary. Now that computers can track part descriptions for us, we do not need part numbers to do the heavy lifting for us.  Computers allow manufacturers to track part numbers with descriptions, so there is no need for the part number to convey intelligent information on its own.