As you’ve learned, job order costing is the optimal accounting method when costs and production specifications are not identical for each product or customer but the direct material and direct labor costs can easily be traced to the final product. Job order costing is often a more complex system and is appropriate when the level of detail is necessary, as discussed in Job Order Costing. Examples of products manufactured using the job order costing method include tax returns or audits conducted by a public accounting firm, custom furniture, or, in a comprehensive example, semitrucks. At the Peterbilt factory in Denton, Texas, the company can build over 100,000 unique versions of their semitrucks without making the same truck twice.
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Process costing is the optimal costing system when a standardized process is used to manufacture identical products and the direct material, direct labor, and manufacturing overhead cannot be easily or economically traced to a specific unit. Process costing is used most often when manufacturing a product in batches. Each department or production process or batch process tracks its direct material and direct labor costs as well as the number of units in production. The actual cost to produce each unit through a process costing system varies, but the average result is an adequate determination of the cost for each manufactured unit. Examples of items produced and accounted for using a form of the process costing method could be soft drinks, petroleum products, or even furniture such as chairs, assuming that the company makes batches of the same chair, instead of customizing final products for individual customers.
For example, small companies, such as David and William’s, and large companies, such as Nabisco, use similar cost-determination processes. In order to understand how much each product costs—for example, Oreo cookies—Nabisco uses process costing to track the direct materials, direct labor, and manufacturing overhead used in the manufacturing of its products. Oreo production has six distinct steps or departments: (1) make the cookie dough, (2) press the cookie dough into a molding machine, (3) bake the cookies, (4) make the filling and apply it to the cookies, (5) put the cookies together into a sandwich, and (6) and place the cookies into plastic trays and packages. Each department keeps track of its direct materials used and direct labor incurred, and manufacturing overhead applied to facilitate determining the cost of a batch of Oreo cookies.
As previously mentioned, process costing is used when similar items are produced in large quantities. As such, many individuals immediately associate process costing with assembly line production. Process costing works best when products cannot be distinguished from each other and, in addition to obvious production line products like ice cream or paint, also works for more complex manufacturing of similar products like small engines. Conversely, products in a job order cost system are manufactured in small quantities and include custom jobs such as custom manufacturing products. They can also be legal or accounting tasks, movie production, or major projects such as construction activities.
The difference between process costing and job order costing relates to how the costs are assigned to the products. In either costing system, the ability to obtain and analyze cost data is needed. This results in the costing system selected being the one that best matches the manufacturing process.
A job order cost system is often more expensive to maintain than a basic process costing system, since there is a cost associated with assigning the individual material and labor to the product. Thus, a job order cost system is used for custom jobs when it is easy to determine the cost of materials and labor used for each job. A process cost system is often less expensive to maintain and works best when items are identical and it is difficult to trace the exact cost of materials and labor to the final product. For example, assume that your company uses three production processes to make jigsaw puzzles. The first process glues the picture on the cardboard backing, the second process cuts the puzzle into pieces, and the final process loads the pieces into the boxes and seals them. Tracing the complete costs for the batch of similar puzzles would likely entail three steps, with three separate costing system components. In this environment, it would be difficult and not economically feasible to trace the exact materials and the exact labor to each individual puzzle; rather, it would be more efficient to trace the costs per batch of puzzles.
The costing system used typically depends on whether the company can most efficiently and economically trace the costs to the job (favoring job order costing system) or to the production department or batch (favoring a process costing system).
While the costing systems are different from each other, management uses the information provided to make similar managerial decisions, such as setting the sales price. For example, in a job order cost system, each job is unique, which allows management to establish individual prices for individual projects. Management also needs to establish a sales price for a product produced with a process costing system, but this system is not designed to stop the production process and individually cost each batch of a product, so management must set a price that will work for many batches of the product.
In addition to setting the sales price, managers need to know the cost of their products in order to determine the value of inventory, plan production, determine labor needs, and make long- and short-term plans. They also need to know the costs to determine when a new product should be added or an old product removed from production.
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In this chapter, you will learn when and why process costing is used. You’ll also learn the concepts of conversion costs and equivalent units of production and how to use these for calculating the unit and total cost of items produced using a process costing system.