Sell Your Project!
This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of IIE Solutions. Yes, that was a long time ago, but the concepts are still applicable.
by John Cesarone, Ph.D., P.E.
(For a software template that helps you implement the concepts of this article, please see this.)

You are a highly trained skilled professional.  You can face the toughest integrals with impunity, install software without blinking an eye, balance a free-body diagram while standing on your head.  But you break out in a cold sweat when you are asked to develop a (gasp!) Cost Benefit Analysis.

Why is this? It's because most of us engineers are not properly nurtured in the fine art of economic analyses, and that is unfortunate.  Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but being able to show that your good idea will make money for your organization is a skill worth its weight in gold.  In this article, we'll look at some practical tips for showing why your project will more than pay for itself, and therefore pass the corporate hurdles on its way to approval.

Actually, there is no need for anyone with a basic understanding of engineering principles to have any trouble performing a proper Cost Benefit Analysis, or CBA.  The skills and math involved are no more complex than the simplest engineering formulas, and the basic equations are derived using freshman calculus (but we won't derive them here).  It's all a question of identifying and balancing the proper factors in the equation.


The first step is identifying the factors that go into our CBA. Some will be hard, tangible numbers, others will be fuzzier.  Let's start with the tangible ones.

The most basic issue is the time horizon of your project.  If it is a short term project, say twelve months or maybe a few years, this is our horizon.  On the other hand, if it has no preconceived ending time, we might want to consider it infinite.  However, infinite CBAs tend to raise eyebrows, and you're usually better off selecting some reasonable time horizon like ten or fifteen years; you don't want to be in the position of pleading that a project needs forever to pay for itself. Along these same lines, even if you expect a project to last for quite awhile, you may want to deliberately select a shorter horizon (five years or so) to show that it pays for itself relatively quickly, with everything after that pure profit.  There are no wrong answers here, it all depends on what you want to prove.

As far as costs go, first you will need to identify your startup costs.  These are the costs that you incur at the beginning of the project, long before it pays you back a dime.  These costs are your up front investment in the project.  They will include cost of equipment, construction costs, training costs, hiring costs, licensing costs, etc.  Anything that you do once and up front goes into this category.  These usually aren't too hard to estimate; you will probably receive bids from vendors and contractors that will be good enough for your analysis.  Even if you are doing your CBA in advance of receiving formal bids, most vendors will give you unofficial numbers that you can use in your justification analysis.  These can be revised later when formal bids are received.

Next, we need ending or salvage costs.  If your project is not anticipated to end (say, installing a new plant for long term production), you can skip this step.  But if it is a closed-ended project with a specific termination date, you need to think about the cash flows at closing time.  Costs might include clean-up costs, outplacement of personnel, dismantling of equipment, etc.  On the other hand, the ending cash flow may actually be positive; if you sell your equipment, cash out your deposits, etc., you may be looking forward to a one-shot income at close-out time.  These kinds of numbers can be difficult to predict with any accuracy, and you might have to settle for a conservative estimate. 

Recurring costs are the next category, and potentially the largest source.  What are your annual or monthly labor expenses, rent, material costs, utility expenses, loan servicing costs, etc.?  You might have some sort of use rate or depreciation that your project must pay to your parent organization which also must be considered.  If all these factors last the entire life of the project, you can sum their annual (or monthly) amounts to an overall recurring total.  If they span different lengths of time (for instance, a monthly loan payment for the first five years, but labor and material costs for all 20 years of a project) you will have recurring costs that change periodically.  Recurring costs are usually the easiest to estimate, based on current labor and burden rates, rents for equivalent equipment, etc.

You will also probably have recurring benefits.  Annual or monthly revenues or savings go in this category.  If these are expected to be constant during the life of the project, they can be summed against the recurring costs.  Frequently, however, these are not expected to kick in until sometime in the middle of the project, or perhaps are expected to grow gradually during the project.

Any other incomes or expenses that you anticipate must be considered as well.  Large single costs or revenues that occur during the project, but not necessarily at the beginning or end, must be estimated, as well as their most likely dates of occurrence.  These might include second-phase construction costs, bond maturities, additional training, equipment conversion costs, etc.


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