When more units of a good or a service can be produced on a larger scale, yet with (on average) less input costs, economies of scale (ES) are said to be achieved. Alternatively, this means that as a company grows and production units increase, a company will have a better chance to decrease its costs. According to theory, economic growth may be achieved when economies of scale are realized.

Adam Smith identified the division of labor and specialization as the two key means to achieve a larger return on production. Through these two techniques, employees would not only be able to concentrate on a specific task, but with time, improve the skills necessary to perform their jobs. The tasks could then be performed better and faster. Hence, through such efficiency, time and money could be saved while production levels increased.

Just like there are economies of scale, diseconomies of scale (DS) also exist. This occurs when production is less than in proportion to inputs. What this means is that there are inefficiencies within the firm or industry resulting in rising average costs.

Internal and External Economies of Scale
Alfred Marshall made a distinction between internal and external economies of scale. When a company reduces costs and increases production, internal economies of scale have been achieved. External economies of scale occur outside of a firm, within an industry. Thus, when an industry's scope of operations expands due to, for example, the creation of a better transportation network, resulting in a subsequent decrease in cost for a company working within that industry, external economies of scale are said to have been achieved. With external ES, all firms within the industry will benefit.

Where Are Economies of Scale?

In addition to specialization and the division of labor, within any company there are various inputs that may result in the production of a good and/or service.

  • Lower input costs: When a company buys inputs in bulk - for example, potatoes used to make French fries at a fast food chain - it can take advantage of volume discounts. (In turn, the farmer who sold the potatoes could also be achieving ES if the farm has lowered its average input costs through, for example, buying fertilizer in bulk at a volume discount.)
  • Costly inputs: Some inputs, such as research and development, advertising, managerial expertise and skilled labor are expensive, but because of the possibility of increased efficiency with such inputs, they can lead to a decrease in the average cost of production and selling. If a company is able to spread the cost of such inputs over an increase in its production units, ES can be realized. Thus, if the fast food chain chooses to spend more money on technology to eventually increase efficiency by lowering the average cost of hamburger assembly, it would also have to increase the number of hamburgers it produces a year in order to cover the increased technology expenditure.
  • Specialized inputs: As the scale of production of a company increases, a company can employ the use of specialized labor and machinery resulting in greater efficiency. This is because workers would be better qualified for a specific job - for example, someone who only makes French fries - and would no longer be spending extra time learning to do work not within their specialization (making hamburgers or taking a customer's order). Machinery, such as a dedicated French fry maker, would also have a longer life as it would not have to be over and/or improperly used.
  • Techniques and Organizational inputs: With a larger scale of production, a company may also apply better organizational skills to its resources, such as a clear-cut chain of command, while improving its techniques for production and distribution. Thus, behind the counter employees at the fast food chain may be organized according to those taking in-house orders and those dedicated to drive-thru customers.
  • Learning inputs: Similar to improved organization and technique, with time, the learning processes related to production, selling and distribution can result in improved efficiency - practice makes perfect!

External economies of scale can also be realized from the above-mentioned inputs as a result of the company's geographical location. Thus all fast food chains located in the same area of a certain city could benefit from lower transportation costs and a skilled labor force. Moreover, support industries may then begin to develop, such as dedicated fast food potato and/or cattle breeding farms.

External economies of scale can also be reaped if the industry lessens the burdens of costly inputs, by sharing technology or managerial expertise, for example. This spillover effect can lead to the creation of standards within an industry.

But Diseconomies Can Also Occur…
As we mentioned before, diseconomies may also occur. They could stem from inefficient managerial or labor policies, over-hiring or deteriorating transportation networks (external DS). Furthermore, as a company's scope increases, it may have to distribute its goods and services in progressively more dispersed areas. This can actually increase average costs resulting in diseconomies of scale.

Some efficiencies and inefficiencies are more location specific, while others are not affected by area. If a company has many plants throughout the country, they can all benefit from costly inputs such as advertising. However, efficiencies and inefficiencies can alternatively stem from a particular location, such as a good or bad climate for farming. When ES or DS are location specific, trade is used in order to gain access to the efficiencies.

Is Bigger Really Better?
There is a worldwide debate about the effects of expanded business seeking economies of scale, and consequently, international trade and the globalization of the economy. Those who oppose this globalization, as seen in the demonstrations held outside World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings, have claimed that not only will small business become extinct with the advent of the transnational corporation, the environment will be negatively affected, developing nations will not grow and the consumer and workforce will become increasingly less visible. As businesses get bigger, the balance of power between demand and supply could become weaker, thus putting the company out of touch with the needs of its consumers. Moreover, it is feared that competition could virtually disappear as large companies begin to integrate and the monopolies created focus on making a buck rather than thinking of the consumer when determining price. The debate and protests continue.

The key to understanding ES and DS is that the sources vary. A company needs to determine the net effect of its decisions affecting its efficiency, and not just focus on one particular source. Thus, while a decision to increase its scale of operations may result in decreasing the average cost of inputs (volume discounts), it could also give rise to diseconomies of scale if its subsequently widened distribution network is inefficient because not enough transport trucks were invested in as well. Thus, when making a strategic decision to expand, companies need to balance the effects of different sources of ES and DS so that the average cost of all decisions made is lower, resulting in greater efficiency all around.

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