Is There a Way to Avoid Lengthy Catalog Numbers?

There are hundreds of industrial automation firms that have been suffering in silence because of the system shortcomings related to part numbers. Many of these companies are unaware that off-the-shelf, intelligent part numbers solutions exist. For more background information, please see Can We Intelligently Use Part Numbers to Configure and Order the Right Products?. Some configurators do support intelligent part numbering. However, the question is, how well?

Handling Lengthy Catalog Numbers

Even if some configurators will support intelligent part numbering, another practical limit is how large the intelligent part numbers can be, as most systems have part number limits. For example, if a product is extremely complex and requires fifty attributes to uniquely identify it, a fifty-character-long (or longer) part number can be cumbersome and impractical for buyers to handle (not to mention memorize). For that purpose, WebSource CPQ goes a step further by featuring the intelligent serialization capability. The vendor uses any one of the following to uniquely identify a combination of attributes:

  • a sequence of 1, 2, 3, …10, … all the way to 10,000;
  • several sequences; or
  • even nested sequences.

An example to illustrate where intelligent serialization is important would be ensuring that a 480-volt, 5-horsepower, 10-ampere combination of a conductor's features will always be identified with the number 1 in a particular position of the part number. This logic resembles the sequences' and positions' designations in bar codes, where a 480-volt, 10-horsepower, 10-ampere set, for example, annotated with 2 would do the same, and so on. By creating this sort of metadata, one can still achieve a unique part number for every unique combination of attributes. But if somebody selects the same combination (set) of attributes, he or she will get a previously assigned sequence. By configuring the system this way, it is possible to avoid long part numbers and duplication (proliferation) of the same bills of materials (BOMs) under different part numbers (if the same combination gets hit repeatedly).

Handling Replaceable and Interchangeable (Competing) Products

Another level of complexity incorporates the ability to perform competitive cross-references. As stated in part one of this series Can We Intelligently Use Part Numbers to Configure and Order the Right Products?, companies such as Eaton and Siemens can have millions of part numbers for just one product, which can certainly have different numbering schemas. So, when an Eaton salesperson tells a customer that his or her Siemens parts need to be replaced, the customer could tell the salesperson which 300 part numbers the company buys from Siemens. The Eaton salesperson can send that list to the Eaton engineers, who can then obtain Siemens's catalogs and (manually) translate those 300 Siemens part numbers into Eaton part numbers.

To that end, WebSource CPQ, by using the reverse configuration capability described above, would look at the B510 catalog number (discussed in Can We Intelligently Use Part Numbers to Configure and Order the Right Products?), for example, feed it into the system, and determine that it is a 480-volt, 5-horsepower, 10-ampere conductor. Then, the company would find an equivalent Siemens product, forward configure it, and end up with a corresponding Siemens part number. This can be done for several hundred numbers at a time so that salespeople can become self-sufficient; they will no longer have to bother engineers. Rather, salespeople can just cut and paste a list into the configurator system. The configurator system then "spits out" (produces) the comparable results.

This is a simple example, of course, since in reality the Siemens product may be blue, but Eaton may offer only light blue and navy blue color options for the equivalent product. In that case, the system either gives a choice to the sales representative, or it automatically makes a product choice itself, and flags that choice as a "near match."

Is There Help with Master Data Management? No, Not Quite Yet

It makes one wonder whether cross-referencing could help with the immense undertaking of master data management (MDM) and product information management (PIM)—see SAP Bolsters NetWeaver's MDM Capabilities and The Role of PIM and PLM in the Product Information Supply Chain: Where is Your Link?. Such undertakings would establish a uniform part numbering convention amid various enterprises' divisions and trading partners, and maybe even within a certain vertical industry.

The current sad state of affairs is that each organization generally has its own proprietary numbering schema. While MDM and PIM tools certainly facilitate the translation and mapping of different part numbers for identical items, a "magic wand" (perfect) solution that will produce a universal translator (which would reconcile all differing semantics and syntaxes) is nonexistent. Generally speaking, someone usually has to come up with a smart way of defining unified part numbering schemas, as well as those schemas' relations to differing schemas from all trading participants within a certain industry.

Furthermore, most current MDM, PIM, customer relationship management (CRM), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) packages have been written under the assumption that they will work with an infinite number of predefined catalog numbers. In other words, these systems have not been set up to work with undetermined and expanding sets of stock-keeping units (SKUs), whose catalog numbers have some embedded logic (formulas). Intelligent numbering and reverse configuration can enrich MDM and PIM systems, but this connection has yet to be noticed, let alone attempted by anyone. Maybe some avant-garde, early adopter enterprises will harness intelligent numbering to solve the proverbial product data management (PDM) problem. Or maybe the problem of item parts proliferation will motivate vendors to create an adequately packaged set of solutions in the future.

Broan-NuTone recently turned to Webcom to address its PIM and product information library (PIL) needs (instead of turning to just any traditional PIM vendor), and will have some interesting results to talk about in the future. Broan ( is North America's largest producer of residential ventilation products, such as range hoods, bath fans, and indoor air quality products. It also holds major market positions in door chimes, central vacuums, intercom systems, medicine cabinets, built-in electric heaters, attic ventilators, ceiling fans, ironing centers, trash compactors, and speakers. One can imagine how important an inflection point and industry-changing practice would be if, for example, Home Depot (Broan's largest retail customer) decided to use the same intelligent numbering solution (and schema) as a standardization means for product attributes.

User Recommendations

Any enterprise that makes customized, configurable, or "made-to-order" items will benefit from deploying engineering and sales configurators (see CRM for Complex Manufacturers Revolves Around Configuration Software). Such companies will likely suffer appalling consequences from the lack of product configurator facilities that feature generic items (with options, variants, and constraints), generic BOMs, generic routings, and pricing functionality.

As a result, it is possible the sales order clerks will have to wait for days for a response from the engineering department regarding the product code, price, and cost. Needless to say, the standard master data can become overcrowded because each product variant has to have a separate stock item code, BOM, and routing—as if it was a standard stock item, and not a made-once customized product (for example, with a special color, material, or other features).

An even worse consequence is that the company might literally have close operations for a few days so that the entire staff can take inventory using an item-master printout as thick as an encyclopedia, even though only a small amount of listed items are actually expected to be in stock. This is without considering the likelihood of identical products having a number of different item codes (considering different people may create item codes unbeknownst to one another).

In addition to Webcom, companies with solid quote-to-order (Q2O) solutions include Oracle, SAP, Cincom Systems, Selectica, Firepond, Trilogy Software, BigMachines, Access Commerce, Click Commerce, Configure One, Comergent Technologies (now part of Sterling Commerce), TechniCon, Tacton, IFS, Experlogix, etc. Some of these companies will support the ability of identifying a configured product using unique "call-out" (temporary) numbers that can be as long as thirty alphanumeric characters. To that end, the user company maintains part catalogs that serve as starting points for a "like, but different" or "copy from and to" configuration process, whereby the resulting alphanumeric call-out number can specify the unique new order or item, and also generate a production routing.

However, the prospective customers from industrial automation and related manufacturing and distribution sectors should query all the vendors in question with regard to the fatal flaws mentioned above. Some possible queries could include whether part numbers are intelligently created, reverse configuration is supported, and intelligent serialization can be harnessed.

On a general note, to determine whether an enterprise solution caters to the needs of industrial automation manufacturers, one should question whether the solution in question can support configuration in both directions (product and number). It is quite likely that this would be one of the first stumbling blocks for many generic ERP, CRM, or Q2O providers.

This concludes the series Can We Intelligently Use Part Numbers to Configure and Order the Right Products?

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