The Economics of DIY Projects
“I want to build a new trailer.” That’s an awesome thing to say, and it’s even better to do. Yet, many such adventures don’t launch because of project economics? What does it cost to build? I’m not talking about big economics like they teach in school, rather I’m talking about the microeconomics of the personal pocket book.
Many people think about DIY projects as a way to save money by building something yourself. In general, that is valid, for sure, but sometimes the economics don’t work out the way we plan. The real value in a DIY project goes way beyond saving money.
New Trailer Example
Let’s start with “I want to build a new trailer“. I’m right there with you, so let’s use the personal experience of Right Now. As you know, this website has a bunch of trailer plans for sale. We price them cheap for the value they provide. However, in this case, we’re engineering and building something different — an experiment with a few crazy new ideas. (If it pans out, we’ll have an awesome new trailer, and you’ll get some cool new trailer plans.)
This started with a system idea for small cars to pull trailers of some significance. As you know, most small cars won’t tow very much, but I don’t believe it has to be that way. I was thinking and researching, then found this EcoModder Post about trailers that nailed it. Why buy a pick-up truck when we rarely use the load carrying capability? How about a slick little trailer for the run to get sheets of plywood or cubic yard of mulch?
Note: I’m not against trucks, on the contrary, they are awesome for loads of things. I use one to carry machinery, tools, lumber, steel, trash, landscaping, etc . . . frequently.
But, I also like trailers, so I designed something a bit different. Now it’s time to build it, and test it.
Project Economics For The Unique
Building a new trailer is not so expensive. Sure, there is a cost to build for materials and tools, but overall, what you get for the price is outstanding. (I’m including the pride of ownership, the customization for your lifestyle, and the lifetime of great service in there, too.) However, things can get expensive when the project becomes truly unique.
For example, this new system has 4 unique design areas. Each of them tackle a “normal” situation with an improved way of doing things. Unfortunately, 3 of these unique design areas require special parts — prototype parts — in order to build and test the concepts. Have you priced CNC prototypes? If not, get ready for sticker shock.
The project economics don’t come as a surprise here. At Synthesis Engineering Services we deal with prototypes all the time — plastic, metal, 3D printing, etc.. It’s just the normal processes for us. However, from a DIY perspective, most people are not willing to shell out $700 for 6 small metal parts to build something. The cost to build prototypes is high, so we’ll do it for you, then bring the ideas to production so you can buy them much cheaper.
Before Starting The Build
The design was done, then drawings and CAD models were sent out for quote. Some part costs came back pretty high, so we sat down and discussed ways for reduction. For this project, there are some conflicting goals — like weight and cost. Originally we wanted to make it with Aluminum, but for testing ideas and to save money, we decided to build in steel, even if it’s heavier. Steel is easier to modify and fabricate as we develop and hone the features.
Next, we looked at ways to reduce stress to eliminate high strength (high cost) materials.
And, finally, we took a long look at the purchase parts to see if there are ways to get them cheaper. Honestly, we need a better hook-up source, but we’ll get into that more in a later post.
Saving money comes by being creative. Sometimes it’s changing things — like Aluminum for Steel. Or, sometimes it’s finding a better deal on parts (like this example). Then, there’s the minor design modifications to take out or change the expensive bits.
The Cost To Build
For the trailer frame itself, the cost to build is not bad. For us, the real cost comes with the prototype sections, and that’s the issue of DIY project economics. More on what those entail later. For now the design is “done” once again, and prints are going out again for requote. Check back occasionally and we’ll post more about how the project is going. We’ll also talk later about the unique features and how the testing goes.
Should be fun, and I hope you’ll join us on the journey.
As we make progress on this trailer project we’ll add links to this list below. Enjoy.
1. Project Progress – Materials and Trailer Build Start.
2. How To Setup A Trailer Frame Build. Mechanic’s tip, with this project trailer as the example.