n. (context economics plurale tantum English): The characteristics of a production process in which an increase in the scale of the firm causes a decrease in the long run average cost of each unit.
In microeconomics, economies of scale are the cost advantages that enterprises obtain due to size, output, or scale of operation, with cost per unit of output generally decreasing with increasing scale as fixed costs are spread out over more units of output.
Often operational efficiency is also greater with increasing scale, leading to lower variable cost as well.
Economies of scale apply to a variety of organizational and business situations and at various levels, such as a business or manufacturing unit, plant or an entire enterprise. For example, a large manufacturing facility would be expected to have a lower cost per unit of output than a smaller facility, all other factors being equal, while a company with many facilities should have a cost advantage over a competitor with fewer.
Some economies of scale, such as capital cost of manufacturing facilities and friction loss of transportation and industrial equipment, have a physical or engineering basis.
The economic concept dates back to Adam Smith and the idea of obtaining larger production returns through the use of division of labor. Diseconomies of scale are the opposite.
Economies of scale often have limits, such as passing the optimum design point where costs per additional unit begin to increase. Common limits include exceeding the nearby raw material supply, such as wood in the lumber, pulp and paper industry. A common limit for low cost per unit weight commodities is saturating the regional market, thus having to ship product uneconomical distances. Other limits include using energy less efficiently or having a higher defect rate.
Large producers are usually efficient at long runs of a product grade (a commodity) and find it costly to switch grades frequently. They will therefore avoid specialty grades even though they have higher margins. Often smaller (usually older) manufacturing facilities remain viable by changing from commodity grade production to specialty products.