The first law of thermodynamics simply says you can’t get something for nothing. It’s universally applicable; never fails. This came to mind when the Denver International Airport (DIA) recently announced that it will have to spend about $20 million to replace 68 passenger-loading bridges that are already falling apart. The hydraulically operated passenger bridges, made by a company that has since gone out of business, are only 7 years old and require $13,500 each in maintenance every year.

By contrast, 26 electrically operated passenger-loading bridges, refurbished and brought over from Stapleton Airport to DIA when it opened, only require about $3,800 in maintenance every year, and apparently show no signs of needing near-term replacement.

Turns out (no surprise here) that the hydraulic bridges were bought from the lowest bidder. Please note that the issue here is not hydraulic vs. electric; the issue is the peril of buying solely on price.

According to the Denver Post, when DIA was built nearly a decade ago, the city of Denver hired outside experts to evaluate which loading bridge company to work with. There was a spirited debate within city government over which bridge supplier to use, and the now-defunct supplier was narrowly approved over the company that built the bridges later brought over from Stapleton. However, a city engineer points out that if the low bidder met the technical specifications for bridges that were written by the consultants, it would have been difficult for Denver to not award the job to that low bidder.

As John Ruskin, the oft-quoted Victorian critic of art and society, said: "It’s unwise to pay too much...but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money...that is all. When you pay too little, you someArial lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better."

It isn’t difficult to draw the analogy with buying assembly automation equipment, or capital equipment for any other aspect of manufacturing. Simply put, beware the temptation to cut corners; don’t buy automation on the cheap. Granted, it’s easy for us to encourage you to buy for best performance, not lowest price. We’re not writing the checks or even trying to sell the project to those who do. But there is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and anyone who buys on price alone is that person’s lawful prey.

The real message is "Let the buyer beware—of himself!"