Rolls Royce, Cadillac, Moving Assembly Line, Economies of Scale, VCR, Cell Phones and HD Plasma Television

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 1st, 2013

History 101

The Moving Assembly Line allows GM to Divide their Costs over more Units than Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce automobiles are very expensive luxury cars.  Of impeccable quality.  It may be the finest automobile ever built.  And I say built not manufactured.  For they build a Rolls Royce by hand to ensure that high quality.  By some of the most experienced and skilled artisans to ever hone metal, wood and leather into an automobile.  Because of this they can’t make a lot of them a year.  They set a record sales total in 2011.  By selling 3,538 hand-crafted automobiles.  The entry price for a Rolls Royce?  Around $250,000.

By contrast GM sold 152,389 Cadillac luxury automobiles in 2011 in North America.  These are not hand-crafted.  The Americans build them on moving assembly lines.  Which is why they can build 43 times as many Cadillacs than they can hand-build Rolls Royces.  The entry price for a Cadillac?  About $33,100.  While a top of the line may cost you around $63,200.  Now Cadillacs are nice.  The name has become synonymous with high quality.  The best quality is the ‘Cadillac’ of something.  The quality may not be Rolls Royce quality but few will complain about that quality when sitting behind the wheel of a Cadillac.  They are glad to settle for a Cadillac over a Rolls Royce.  Especially when it costs 7.5 times as much to get into a Rolls Royce than into a Cadillac.

Why are hand-crafted Rolls Royce automobiles so much more costly than Cadillacs manufactured on a moving assembly line?  Economies of scale.  The higher production levels of the mass-produced cars allows GM to divide all of their costs over many more units.  Bringing the unit cost down.  And the selling price.  With fewer sales the unit cost for Rolls Royce is much higher.  As is the selling price.

As Demand grew Manufacturers were able to Bring Prices Down thanks to Economies of Scale

Rolls Royce pays a price for their commitment to quality.  They can’t sell cars as inexpensively as some of their luxury rivals.  But that’s okay for them.  As the market for hand-crafted luxury cars is large enough to keep them in business doing what they love.  Building the finest quality automobile in the world.  And those who want the best can afford to pay a quarter of a million dollars for an entry-level Rolls Royce.  So they do.  Which is why Rolls Royce doesn’t have to worry about economies of scales to compete against their competition.

Before Henry Ford built the moving assembly line cars were too expensive for the working man.  Henry Ford changed that.  Once they started manufacturing the new driving machine on the moving assembly line Ford was able to reach an economy of scale that greatly increased production rates.  Bringing down the unit cost.  And the selling price.  As new products entered the market place they were typically unaffordable to all but the rich.  But then as demand grew manufacturers were able to bring prices down thanks to economies of scale.  Like Henry Ford did with the automobile.

The first commercially viable video tape recorder was the Ampex model VR-1000 in 1956.  It cost $50,000 (about $421,000 today).  It was the size of a kitchen stove.  And about the only place you found them were in television broadcast studios.  From this early beginning came the technology for the video cassette recorder (VCR).  By the mid to late Seventies schools had one they rolled from room to room.  It cost approximately $5,000 (about $19,400 today).  About a decade later you could buy a smaller unit that could do more for around $2,000 (about $4,000 today).  Just before the DVD player and the digital video recorder made them obsolete you could get a nice one for about $100.  They were so small and so inexpensive that you bought one for every television in the house.

Bringing these Prices Down are State-of-the-Art High-Tech Manufacturers throughout Asia

When the first cell phones came out we called them car phones.  Because they were so big and had no real battery life that they were permanently installed in a car.  Connected to the electrical system of the car.  The first real portable cell phone was something that looked like a brick and weighed in around 2 pounds.  The battery gave you maybe an hour of talk time.  And it cost $3,995 in 1982 (about $9,600 today).  By 1993 the price was down to $900 ($1,400 today) but still weighed in at 2 pounds.  By 1996 the weight dropped to about 3 ounces.  It cost about $1,000 ($1,400 today).  By 2002 you could buy a flip-phone with a built-in high resolution camera for $400 (about $510 today).  And so on until they got smaller and more powerful with longer battery lives.  Today you can often get a pretty nice phone free when you sign a contract for service.

Things people like and demand can accelerate this process of quality improvement and lower prices.  For half a century the television has been a fixture in most American homes.  So technology buffs with money were always ready to spend a lot of money on the next best thing.  And when high-definition plasma televisions hit the market it didn’t take long for economies of scale to bring prices down as demand exploded for these beautiful things.  A Panasonic 42″ high-definition plasma television cost around $2,500 in 2004 (about $3,000 today).  About 4 years later you could get a slightly better set for about $700 (about $750 today).  Today you can buy an even better 42 inch plasma set from Panasonic for as little as $400.

Bringing these prices down are state-of-the-art high-tech manufacturers throughout Asia (Japan, South Korea, etc.).  They can mass produce cell phones and televisions and other high-tech goods at remarkable production rates.  Filling ships with their goods to export around the world.  They bring together high-skilled labor and the best in automated production equipment.  They can retool and begin new production so fast that they can fill the demand for the next big thing without missing a step.  And quickly ramp up to an economy of scale wherever they see growing consumer demand.  Bringing down unit costs.  And prices.  Making a lot of happy consumers around the world.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2010

LOW PRICES.  GOD help me, I do hate them so.  I hate them with every fiber of my body.

Who says this?  Do you?  I don’t.  Of all the times I’ve spent shopping, I have never heard anyone bitch about low prices.  I’ve heard people bitch about high prices.  But never about low prices.  When gas approached $3/gallon, people bitched about that being too high and drove 10 miles to find ‘cheap’ gas to save a few pennies per gallon.  Let it approach $4/gallon and they’ll want Congress to take action.  To attack Big Oil.  To seize their oil and their profits and give us cheap gasoline in return.  But when gas was cheap, no one ever bitched about it being ‘too’ cheap.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  People bitch about high prices.  Not low prices.

So who bitches about low prices?  Competitors.  There’s a saying that competition makes everything better.  And it does.  It lowers prices.  And raises quality.  And who is looking for lower prices and higher quality?  Consumers.  Who isn’t?  Competitors.  Especially competitors with political connections.

WHEN THE BIG 3 were putting out crap in the 1970s, they did so because they could.  I mean, who else were you going to buy a car from?  So what if your car breaks down and the fenders and quarter panels rust away?  That just means you gotta buy another car sooner rather than later.  A pretty sweet deal.  Especially when there are only three places to go to buy a car.  And each of the Big 3 is selling the same crap.

Then the Japanese had to go and ruin a good thing.  They started selling cars in America.  These cars were smaller than your typical American car.  But there were other differences.  They didn’t rust like the American cars.  They didn’t break down as much.  And the imports were cheaper than the American cars.  Lower price and higher quality.  More bang for the buck.  Exactly what consumers were demanding.

So what was the response of the Big 3?  Did they rise to the level of their new competitors and deliver what the consumer wanted?  No.  They ran to government for help.  For protection.  And they got it.  Voluntary Export Restraints (VER).  The government negotiated with the Japanese to ‘voluntarily’ limit the number of cars they exported to the United States.  Or else.  So they did.  To avoid worse protectionist policies.  Problem solved.  Competition was limited.  And the Big 3 were very profitable in the short run.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the Japanese refused to play nice.

The problem was what the Big 3 did with those profits.  Or, rather, what they didn’t do with them.  They didn’t reinvest them to raise themselves up to the level of the Japanese.  Protected, they saw no incentive to change.  Not when you have Big Government on your side.  And how did that work for them?  Not good. 

So look, the Japanese said, the Americans like our cars.  If the American manufacturers won’t give them what they want, we will.  While honoring the VER.  We won’t export more cars.  We’ll just build bigger and better cars to export.  And they did.  The Big 3 were no longer up against inexpensive, higher quality subcompacts on the fringe of their market share.  Now their mid-size and large-size cars had competition.  And this wasn’t on the fringe of their market share.  This was their bread and butter.  What to do?  Build better cars and give Americans more bang for their buck?  Or run to government again?  What do you think?

The Big 3 assaulted the Japanese under the guise of ‘fair trade’.  The cry went out that unless the Japanese opened up their markets to American imports (in particular auto parts), we should restrict Japanese imports.  To protect American jobs.  To protect the American worker.  To protect the children.  This was code for please make the Japanese cars more unattractive to purchasers so they will settle for the more costly and lower quality cars we’re making.  (Let’s not forget the reason Americans were buying the Japanese cars in the first place).

The Japanese response?  They took it up a notch.  They entered the luxury markets.  They launched Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  They competed against Cadillac and Lincoln.  And well.  The quality was so good they even affected the European luxury imports.  More attacks followed.  Americans were losing their jobs.  Soon there would be no more American manufacturing left in the country.  So the Japanese built plants in America.  And Americans were now building the Japanese cars.  The Japanese actually created American jobs.

SON OF A BITCH!  So much for the loss of American jobs.  The Japanese threw a wrench in that argument.  So now the argument became about the loss of ‘high paying’ American jobs.  For the Japanese plants were non-union.  Didn’t matter that their workers were making better pay and benefits than many in their region.  No.  What mattered was that they were building a better product.  And they didn’t want THESE jobs in America.  But if they couldn’t get rid of these new workers, they should at least unionize them so their cars cost more.  To make them a little less appealing to the American consumer.  So far they have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.  The workers are happy as they are.

Well, these cars just weren’t going away.  So the Americans surrendered car manufacturing to the Japanese.  They couldn’t beat them.  (Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t even try).  They, instead, focused on the higher profit truck and SUV markets.  Then the Japanese entered those markets.  And at every level they competed with the Americans, the Japanese gave more bang for the buck.  And the consumers responded.  With their hard-earned wages.  It just wasn’t fair.  The Japanese kept giving the American consumer a better product.  No matter what political action the Big 3 took or demanded.

And there’s the problem.  They sought their answers from government.  Instead of making a better car.  They wanted to stop the Japanese from giving the American consumer what they wanted so they could force Americans to pay more for less.  All the while the economy was forcing the majority of consumers to get by on less (the majority of consumers do not have the wage and benefit package the ‘select’ few had in the Big 3). 

Fast forward to 2008 and we see the ultimate consequence of their actions.  Bankruptcy.  GM and Chrysler had to grovel for a federal bailout and in the process become Washington’s bitch.  Ford survived on her own.  As did the Japanese.  You can bitch all you want about costs, but if you have the revenue you can pay your costs.  And the Americans just couldn’t sell enough cars to maintain the revenue they needed for their cost structure.  By refusing to address the core problem (they weren’t making cars Americans wanted to buy), they only made their competition stronger and more entrenched in the U.S. market.

IT’S ALL POLITICS.  Political cronyism.  And crony capitalism.  It all comes down to political spoils and patronage.  That’s what happens when politics enter capitalism.  Big Business partners with Big Government and they enter into relationships.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.  But when government protects a business for political expediency, the industry suffers in the long run.  As the U.S. automobile industry has.  Ditto for the U.S. textile industry.  And the U.S. steel industry.

So what goes wrong?  When you protect an industry you insulate it from market forces.  You can build crap.  The problem is, consumers don’t buy crap.  So, for awhile, politics intervene and makes the crap more favorable.  Whether it’s predatory pricing, monopolistic pricing or collusion, business can’t win.  Big Government is there.  If your prices are too low, government will intervene.  If prices are too high, government will intervene.  If prices are too similar, government will intervene.  To make things ‘fair’.  And by fair they mean to reward those who play the game and to punish those who don’t.  And the spoils go to those large voting blocs they need.  And in return for their votes, they can count on patronage.  Government jobs.  Political positions.  Favorable legislation and regulation.  If you got the vote out, you were rewarded quite nicely. 

And consumers be damned. .

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