Following successful communication of the design intent through available software plug-ins, we acquired quotes from two manufacturers within a regional vicinity. Facility A uses automated saws and jig tables in the facility and Facility B has no automated machinery.
Despite the significant difference in the two quotes, the difference may not be the result of automation. The Facility A designer said, “There are about 285 total sticks used to build these trusses and 145 are unique. I don’t see automation significantly decreasing the cost until they build robots to do it and then the robots are paid for. Experience has shown me though that even when they build robots, 2 years later your robot is obsolete and the newer, faster, more productive one will cost more. It is a cycle.” Despite the automation, he states that complexity increases cost and the true savings occurs for large projects with like trusses. For this project, he says, the difference is likely no more than $100.
An issue of economies of scale
Without having a larger pool of cost estimates, the cost difference between the two manufacturers could be attributed to economies of scale, which may turn out to be the primary barrier to the cost-effectiveness of complex designs. A third quote we had hoped to have in comparison was from a very large and fully-automated manufacturer in the region. Likely to offer the most significant cost-savings for a complex project, this facility currently has tremendously demand from builders of large and repetitive projects and it is not cost-effective for the facility to take on a project as small and specialized as our test design.
With economies of scale, manufacturers can produce more product in a shorter amount of time because the process is repetitive and eliminates certain steps like re-jigging a table. Thus, taking on a smaller project where re-jigging must occur between each truss incurs at least the opportunity cost of producing many more trusses with a more repetitive project in the same amount of time. While it is possible that technology may increase opportunity for affordable or market-rate projects, our assessment is that the motivation to create this opportunity is in many ways misaligned with that of the industry and with the profit-driven culture of the economy. Even if a cost savings is realized by a manufacturer utilizing new technology, the savings may not necessarily be passed on to the consumer.