Structure of Costs in the Long Run

Read this chapter. As you read and begin to understand what economies of scale are, create your own definition and see how it is similar or different from the text. In addition, focus on the diseconomies of scale to see what happens when a factory grows too quickly and becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

The Structure of Costs in the Long Run

Economies of Scale

Once a firm has determined the least costly production technology, it can consider the optimal scale of production, or quantity of output to produce. Many industries experience economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to the situation where, as the quantity of output goes up, the cost per unit goes down. This is the idea behind "warehouse stores" like Costco or Walmart. In everyday language: a larger factory can produce at a lower average cost than a smaller factory.

Figure 1 illustrates the idea of economies of scale, showing the average cost of producing an alarm clock falling as the quantity of output rises. For a small-sized factory like S, with an output level of 1,000, the average cost of production is $12 per alarm clock. For a medium-sized factory like M, with an output level of 2,000, the average cost of production falls to $8 per alarm clock. For a large factory like L, with an output of 5,000, the average cost of production declines still further to $4 per alarm clock.

The graph shows a downward sloping line that represents how large-scale production leads to a decrease in average costs.

Figure 1. Economies of Scale. A small factory like S produces 1,000 alarm clocks at an average cost of $12 per clock. A medium factory like M produces 2,000 alarm clocks at a cost of $8 per clock. A large factory like L produces 5,000 alarm clocks at a cost of $4 per clock. Economies of scale exist because the larger scale of production leads to lower average costs.

The average cost curve in Figure 1 may appear similar to the average cost curves presented earlier in this chapter, although it is downward-sloping rather than U-shaped. But there is one major difference. The economies of scale curve is a long-run average cost curve, because it allows all factors of production to change. The short-run average cost curves presented earlier in this chapter assumed the existence of fixed costs, and only variable costs were allowed to change.

One prominent example of economies of scale occurs in the chemical industry. Chemical plants have a lot of pipes. The cost of the materials for producing a pipe is related to the circumference of the pipe and its length. However, the volume of chemicals that can flow through a pipe is determined by the cross-section area of the pipe. The calculations in Table 8 show that a pipe which uses twice as much material to make (as shown by the circumference of the pipe doubling) can actually carry four times the volume of chemicals because the cross-section area of the pipe rises by a factor of four (as shown in the Area column).

Circumference (2πr2πr) Area (πr2πr2)
4-inch pipe 12.5 inches 12.5 square inches
8-inch pipe 25.1 inches 50.2 square inches
16-inch pipe 50.2 inches 201.1 square inches
Table 8. Comparing Pipes: Economies of Scale in the Chemical Industry


A doubling of the cost of producing the pipe allows the chemical firm to process four times as much material. This pattern is a major reason for economies of scale in chemical production, which uses a large quantity of pipes. Of course, economies of scale in a chemical plant are more complex than this simple calculation suggests. But the chemical engineers who design these plants have long used what they call the "six-tenths rule," a rule of thumb which holds that increasing the quantity produced in a chemical plant by a certain percentage will increase total cost by only six-tenths as much.