May 292012

One thing that is interesting about Product Cost Management is that people have different thoughts as to what is included in the product cost.  Is the product cost the raw material, labor, and direct  labor?  What about the capital tooling?  What about logistics and shipping?  Oh, and what about warranty cost or end of life disposal fees for which your firm is responsible?

The short answer is E. All of the above.

In a product and manufacturing firm, everything on the income statement is included in the product cost.  However, the income statement does not easily present a direct association between a particular cost with a certain product.  Hence, accounting came up the concept of “indirect,” “period,” or “burden” costs.  This is accounting speak for, “We’re not really sure how to reliably split this bucket of cost and assign it to an individual product.”  Later, academics and consultants made a lot of money, and caused great pain and suffering, with Activity Based Costing.   This method was invented to try to reasonably amortize indirect costs in a logical way, so that people could call them direct costs.  ABC was a good idea, but in most companies, it was badly implemented in an impractical way that made everyone lose interest in it.

So, what IS in Product Cost?  That’s a tricky question that we may be talking about for a long time.  However, I would like to address one particular cost that is a perennial burr in my bell bottoms.

Grand Theft Auto — Yes Virginia, Capital is a Real Cost

Imagine you were selling your car and put a “For Sale” sign on it in the parking lot of your company.  Over lunch one day, one of the engineers in your firm walks up to your desk and says he’d like to buy your car.  You might say, “Great!  I’ll make you a deal. It’s $5,000.”   But the engineer looks at you in a confused manner and said, “Oh no, you see, I’m only responsible for the ‘variable’ costs of the car such as gas, insurance, those little pine tree air fresheners, etc.  The capital cost of the car is not my problem.  It comes out of ‘another budget,’ for which I am not responsible.  Can I have the keys now?”  You would not give him your car and might actually ask his supervisor to have the guy checked out for behaving in such an irrational way.

That’s a bizarre story, and no engineer that I know would say something like that… unless they are talking about Product Cost.  I wish I had a dollar for every time an engineer or his manager told me that capital tooling “didn’t matter because that comes out of a different budget.”  Capital Investment and Capital Tooling are real things that cost real money.  However, most organizations treat them as if they are totally different than the variable product costs (e.g. raw material, labor, direct overhead, etc.).    No, capital is not different, in the sense that the design team’s decisions will determine how much capital is needed, just as their decisions affect variable costs.  However, at best, engineering teams will only consider capital as completely separate from the “Piece Part Price.”  Many engineering departments do not consider capital in any serious manner at all.

This leads to perverse decision making.  Why?  Typically, investment in capital will reduce the variable cost of a part, and there are often multiple ways to make a part.  For example, let’s say that you are Joey Bag O’Donuts design engineer, who has been given challenging cost targets for Piece Part Cost.  You design a part and your purchasing guy comes back with quotes from 3 suppliers:

Supplier  Piece Part Cost Capital Tooling Cost
Louie’s Laser Library $15.10 $1,000
Pete’s Press Emporium $12.50 $15,000
Chuck’s Casting Shack $10.50* $13,000
Capital breakeven in Product Cost Management Hiller Associates

Click to Enlarge!

* Redesign will be required to use Chuck as a supplier

Of course, capital is “considered” by Joey’s engineering team, but it’s hard to comprehend because it is considered separately from variable costs.  Joey would likely choose Pete as a supplier because Pete is cheaper on Piece Part Cost.  Joey won’t have to redesign as he would if Chuck was Joey’s supplier.  Joey’s Cost Target is based on Piece Part Cost.  Sure, his supervisor tells him to “watch the capital,” but the capital budget is this big amorphous pot of money that everyone shares, so Joey is not personally penalized for using it.

However, using a bit of eighth-grade math, we can graph the real cost to the company, including the capital amortized over the life the tool.  We see that the right decision for maximum product profit depends on the volume of products we will sell before more capital needs to be spent to refurbish or replace the tool.

Capital is Different… It’s MORE Important Than Piece Part Cost

The attitue of most product development teams towards capital shows that they implicitly believe capital is LESS important than the Piece Part Cost.  However, I would argue that the opposite is true for at least 3 reasons:

  1. Time Value of Money — You have to buy capital up front, spending the dollars earlier.  Using sophomore math and a proper cost of capital for the organization, you can calculate how much more expensive capital is than variable costs.
  2. Risk of Change — Capital Tooling is often called “hard tooling” because it is made for a specific part.  Often out of hardened steels that are expensive to manufacture and machine. But, the tooling is ‘hard’ in another way:  it’s hard to change.  Let’s say that Joey’s part failed in the field and needed to be modified.  It’s likely that the tooling will need to be to be modified, and tooling modifications are expensive.  So, how do we account for the risk of changes in calculations of tooling cost?  I will have to look into that, or perhaps, one of our readers can suggest a method.  One  method would be to ask the following questions:  What percentage of parts are modified after tooling is created and what is the average cost of tool modification as a percentage of the original tooling cost?  Using these two numbers, we could create a reasonable risk multiplier for capital.
  3. Return on Assets — Since the 1980’s, Wall Street has been obsessed with “asset light” companies.  Some of this is just Wall Street codifying reasons 1 & 2 in the stock price.  However, a lot of this has to do with leveraged buyouts and other financial “engineering” voodoo.  Regardless of whether assets light strategy really adds or subtracts value from the firm, Wall Street thinks it does.

These are just three reasons why capital is an expensive cost that should be considered as part of product cost and considered together with piece part cost.  There may be others, too, but at the end of the day remember:

Cars are not free and neither is the capital tooling for your product.

This advice may help keep you out of jail and/or the world of unprofitable products.

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