8.10 Conversion Costs

In a processing environment, there are two concepts important to determining the cost of products produced. These are the concepts of equivalent units and conversion costs. As you have learned, equivalent units are the number of units that would have been produced if one unit was completed before starting a second unit. For example, four units that are one-fourth finished would equal one equivalent unit. Conversion costs are the labor and overhead expenses that “convert” raw materials into a completed unit. Each department tracks its conversion costs in order to determine the quantity and cost per unit (see TBD; we discuss this concept in more detail later). Management often uses the cost information generated to set the sales price; to set standard usage data and price for material, labor, and overhead; and to allow management to evaluate the efficiency of production and plan for the future.

Definition of Conversion Costs

Conversion costs are the total of direct labor and factory overhead costs. They are combined because it is the labor and overhead together that convert the raw material into the finished product. Remember that factory, manufacturing, or organizational overhead (you might see all three terms in practice) is composed of three sources: indirect materials, indirect labor, and all other overhead costs that are not indirect materials or indirect labor. Materials are often added in stages at discrete points of production, such as at the beginning, middle, or end of a process, but conversion is usually applied equally throughout the process. For example, in the opening example, David and William do not add direct material (ingredients) evenly throughout the cookie-making process. They are all added at the beginning of the production process, so they begin with the direct materials but add labor and overhead throughout the rest of the process.

Conversion costs can be explained through the process of making Just Born’s Peeps. Just Born makes 5.5 million Peeps per day using three ingredients and the following process:3

  1. Use machines to add and mix the sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin into a mixture called a slurry. Send slurry through a whipper to give the marshmallow its fluffy texture.
  2. Color the sugar.
  3. Deposit marshmallows on sugar-coated belts in the Peep shape. Send Peeps on belts through a wind tunnel that stirs up the sugar to coat the entire shape.
  4. Add eyes, and inspect.
  5. Move the Peeps via belt into their appropriate tray, and wrap with cellophane.

In the Peep-making process, the direct materials of sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, color, and packaging materials are added at the beginning of steps 1, 2, and 5. While the fully automated production does not need direct labor, it does need indirect labor in each step to ensure the machines are operating properly and to perform inspections (step 4).

Mechanics of Applying Conversion Costs

Let’s return to our drumstick example to learn how to work with conversion costs. Rock City Percussion has two departments critical to manufacturing drumsticks: the shaping and packaging departments.

The shaping department uses only wood as its direct material and water as its indirect material. In the shaping department, the material is added first. Then, machines cut the wood underwater into dowels, separate them, and move them to machines that shape the dowels into drumsticks. These machines need electricity to operate and personnel to monitor and adjust the processes and to maintain the equipment. When the shaping is finished, a conveyer belt transfers the sticks to the finishing department.

Since the drumsticks are made by performing one process on one batch at a time, instead of producing one stick at a time from start to finish, it is difficult to determine the exact materials, labor, and overhead for a single pair of drumsticks. It is easier to track the materials and conversion costs for one batch and have those costs follow the batch to the next process.

Therefore, once the batch of sticks gets to the second process—the packaging department—it already has costs attached to it. In other words, the packaging department receives both the drumsticks and their related costs from the shaping department. For the basic size 5A stick, the packaging department adds material at the beginning of the process. The 5A uses only packaging sleeves as its direct material, while other types may also include nylon, felt, and/or the ingredients for the proprietary handgrip. Direct labor and manufacturing overhead are used to test, weigh, and sound-match the drumsticks into pairs.

Thus, at the end of the accounting period, there are two work in process inventories: one in the shaping department and one in the packaging department.

Direct materials are added at the beginning of shaping and packaging departments, so the work in process inventory for those departments is 100% complete with regard to materials, but it is not complete with regard to conversion costs. If they were 100% complete with regard to conversion costs, then they would have been transferred to the next department.


  • 3 Just Born. “Marshmallow Peeps Factory Tour.” n.d. http://www.justborn.com/resource/corporate/popups/virtualTour.cfm


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