Serial numbers are used to uniquely differentiate two physically identical parts. Companies have many motivations to serialize their parts such as improved traceability, compliance, regulatory requirements, and better inventory management. Although applying serial numbers can be simple, there are number of best practices to ensure you are fully leveraging the benefits of serialization.
It is important to define a consistent serial number format that can be applied across your company. The benefit of a consistent format is that key information can be inferred by directly reading the barcode. For example, if the MYY is 617, you can infer that the part was manufactured in June 2023 (using hexadecimal characters).
Serial number formats should be future proofed, so your company can grow without impacting the serial number format. Efficient internal systems will rely on consistent serial number formats.
A serial number can have:
Serial numbers are alphanumeric meaning hexadecimals can be used to pack more permutations into the same number of characters or the same permutations in fewer characters. Its better to have a shorter serial number because they are easier to read. It is also easier to encode into barcode. A longer serial number requires a more dense barcode, which is more difficult to read for a barcode scanner.
After defining the serial number format, the next step is to assign serial numbers to physical parts. There are a number of ways to label parts with a unique identifier, each with their own pros and cons:
The more permanent a serial number the lower the risk of serial number mismatches (mixing up parts because a serial number label was swapped). Mismatches can lead to major confusion and threaten the value of serializing in the first place.
Barcodes are simply a machine readable serial number. They were introduced in the late 40’s as a standardized format that was much easier for machines to read and decode into text. There are many different kinds of barcode, but in they end they simply translate a character string into a pattern.
It is recommended to also add barcodes to your serial number labels to empower your traceability tools and give your operations team the option to scan parts into manufacturing execution systems or inventory tools.
RFID trackers offer a wide variety of benefits, such as more data capacity, faster read times, and high read rates. However, they are typically more expensive and therefore less common than barcodes.
Serial numbers are often assigned at the end of manufacturing. This makes sense for certain industries that serialize for compliance reasons or industries that value supply chain tracking. However, if parts are serialized as early as possible then unique data from manufacturing processes can be associated to each part, including:
In short this builds a more robust traceability system that can benefit engineering and operations teams.
Once parts have been serialized a company can realize a wide variety of operational benefits. such as:
Storing serial numbers in a database enables companies to leverage all of the benefits outlined in Best Practice #3. Companies with great databases generally have fewer and smaller recalls as they are able to trace back quality issues to isolated batches or manufacturing processes.
In fact, this is exactly what we are building at Serial. At its core, Serial is an automated analytics platform for engineering and operations teams to instantly analyze the performance metrics of parts, understand inventory levels, and manage service events. Tracking serial numbers to high degree of accuracy can lead to automating a variety of business operations and an overall improvement to efficiency.
The best systems track every event for every serial number. In doing so, the company gains a single source of truth for the entire lifetime of a specific part. The guiding principle of Serial is to place the serial number at the center of the product and associate all events from design, to manufacturing to maintenance & repairs.
Consider the top-level serial number of a drone. At the time of manufacturing, the serial numbers of various sub-assemblies such as the motors or battery have been linked to the top-level serial number. If this drone undergoes a service event and the battery changes, is it a new drone? From a hardware standpoint, yes. From a serialization standpoint, no.
We handle this using the Serial Timeline, a core feature of Serial. This enables engineering and operations teams to search a single serial number of pull the entire history in a single place. All hardware variations, test logs, images and more.
Serialization provides many benefits for engineering and operations teams. A serial number format can go long way to improving basic context of part. Applying serial numbers with a barcode is important to avoid mismatches. Once labeled the business benefits of serialization can realized through internal tools or thoughtfully designed tools like Serial.
Tak is the Co-founder & CEO of Serial. He has over 5 years of experience in manufacturing operations, notably working on the iPhone, Apple Watch and Vision Pro. He has firsthand experience deploying large-scale manufacturing data tools to empower engineers to make data-driven decisions. Now he wants to help all engineers save time and effort.