Smart Part Numbers Are Dumb

Thirty digit part numbers. Imagine 065STHRTY7823WY-67GFWKP65-BV-C is normal for everything you work with.

Awful? Very.

I have suffered through 30 digit smart part numbers and do not wish that experience on anyone.

Engineers regularly had to decipher part numbers for other people because they could not understand the numbers or the 20+ page convoluted spreadsheet used to decipher the hidden meaning of every digit.

The following situation occurred regularly and was a constant headache. A machined shaft’s part number contained digits that specified its overall length similar to xx.xx. So if this shaft was 7.375 inches long those digits would be …-0738-... and the last digit would be the current part revision like -A or -E.


Well what happens when you revise the part as shown below:

Current part number: S-0738-ETC-A 7.375 length needs to be changed to 7.50 length Possible new numbers: S-0738-ETC-B, S-0750-ETC-A, or S-0750-ETC-B. The reason that I list those three choices is because they were all used, seemingly randomly, in situations exactly like this.

  • S-0738-ETC-B because this was a new revision of the older part.

  • S-0750-ETC-A because this is a new part with a different length.

  • S-0750-ETC-B because this is a new part with a different length but the last one was revision A so we better set the revision of this one to B.

I’m sure that you can see how poorly this system works. If only there was a better way...

So let's do the same revision change with a sequential part number Current part number: 468515 Current part description: length 7.375 inches

Oh no, the 7.375 part length needs to be changed to 7.500

New part number: 468515 New part description: length 7.500 inches Wow. That was much simpler.

Another equally bad situation was appending special codes to the end of part numbers like 1234-A-B. The A was the revision level and the B was for blue paint. That was okay until a week later we needed one with brown paint. B was taken so we used R for brown since it was the second letter. Great. Now we need a red one.. So let's use E because R is taken for brown. Okay now we would like to have…

This madness created a world of confusion and headache when we could have simply put “blue paint” in the comment section for this part number. No one would have had to use a decoder sheet to understand what in the world they were looking at.

Here is a quick comparison of the two systems:

Smart numbers

  • Usually long length

  • Can encode information into the part number itself

  • Can tell what a part is by reading number alone

  • Can easily become long and cumbersome when adding more information

  • Hard to remember because of length

  • Causes inventory picking errors due to ignoring the sheer amount of garbage the number contains

  • Requires engineering or other specialized help to create

  • People must learn how to read the numbers

  • Hard to remember 065STHRTY7823OY-67GFWKP65-BV-C when looking for a part in inventory

Sequential numbers

  • Short length

  • Must read the description to tell what a part is because part number digits do not mean anything

  • 5 digits gives you 100,000 numbers

  • 7 digits gives you 10,000,000 numbers

  • You can easily add another digit to the front of the part numbers to increase the amount if needed. For example 1234 would now become 01234.

  • To further increase the part number combinations you can use alpha-numeric codes

  • Anyone can create new numbers

  • No training required to read numbers

  • All information is listed in a set format in the description

  • Easy to remember 73568 when looking for a part in inventory

An added benefit is that it is normally much easier to change/update a memo field than a part number in an ERP system.

If you cannot tell by this point, I am 100% on the side of sequential part numbers with detailed descriptions. What are your thoughts?

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