For those who have followed my blog over the years, it must be clear that I am advocating for a digital enterprise explaining benefits of a data-driven approach where possible. In the past month an old topic with new insights came to my attention: Yes or No intelligent Part Numbers or do we mean Product Numbers?



What’s the difference between a Part and a Product?

In a PLM data model, you need to have support for both Parts and Products and there is a significant difference between these two types of business objects. A Product is an object facing the outside world, which can be a company (B2B) or customer (B2C) related. Examples of B2C products are the Apple iPhone 8, the famous IKEA Billy, or my Garmin 810 and my Dell OptiPlex 3050 MFXX8.  Examples of B2B products are the ABB synchronous motor AMZ 2500, the FESTO standard cylinder DSBG.  Products have a name and if there are variants of the product, they also have an additional identifier.

A Part represents a physical object that can be purchased or manufactured. A combination of Parts appears in a BOM. In case these Parts are not yet resolved for manufacturing, this BOM might be the Engineering BOM or a generic Manufacturing BOM. In case the Parts are resolved for a specific manufacturing plant, we talk about the MBOM.

I have discussed the relation between Parts and Products in a earlier post Products, BOMs and Parts which was a follow-up on my LinkedIn post, the importance of a PLM data model. Although both posts were written more than two years ago, the content is still valid. In the upcoming year, I will address this topic of products further, including software and services moving to solutions / experiences.

Intelligent number for Parts?

As parts are company internal business objects, I would like to state if the company is serious about becoming a digital enterprise, parts should have meaningless unique identifiers. Unique identifiers are the link between discipline or application specific data sets. For example, in the image below, where I imagined attributes sets for a part, based on engineering and manufacturing data sets.

Apart from the unique ID, there might be a common set of attributes that will be exposed in every connected system. For example, a description, a classification and one or more status attributes might be needed.

Note 1: A revision number is not needed when you create every time a new unique ID for a new version of the part.  This practice is already common in the electronics industry. In the old mechanical domain, we are used to having revisions in particular for make parts based on Form-Fit-Function rules.

Note 2: The description might be generated automatically based on a concatenation of some key attributes.

Of course if you are aiming for a full digital enterprise, and I think you should, do not waste time fixing the past. In some situations, I learned that an external consultant recommended the company to rename their old meaningful part numbers to the new non-intelligent part numbering scheme. There are two mistakes here. Renumbering is too costly, as all referenced information should be updated. And secondly as long as the old part numbers have a unique ID for the enterprise, there is no need to change. The connectivity of information should not depend on how the unique ID is formatted.

Read more if you want here: The impact of Non-Intelligent Part Numbers

Intelligent numbers for Products?

If the world was 100 % digital and connected, we could work with non-intelligent product numbers. However, this is a stage beyond my current imagination.  For products we will still need a number that allows customers to refer to, for when they communicate with their supplier / vendor or service provider. For many high-tech products the product name and type might be enough. When I talk about the Samsung S5 G900F 16G, the vendor knows which kind of configuration I am referring too. Still it is important to realize that behind these specifications, different MBOMs might exist due to different manufacturing locations or times.

However, when I refer to the IKEA Billy, there are too many options to easily describe the right one consistent in words, therefore you will find a part number on the website, e.g. 002.638.50. This unique ID connects directly to a single sell-able configuration. Here behind this unique ID also different MBOMs might exist for the same reason as for the Samsung telephone. The number is a connection to the sales configuration and should not be too complicated as people need to be able to read and recognize it when you go to a warehouse.


There is a big difference between Product and Part numbers because of the intended scope of these business objects. Parts will soon exist in connected, digital enterprises and therefore do not need any meaningful number anymore. Products need to be identified by consumers anywhere around the world, not yet able or willing to have a digital connection with their vendors. Therefore smaller and understandable numbers will remain needed to support exact communication between consumer and vendor.