Foolish Book Review: "A Consumer's Guide to MEMS & Nanotechnology"

A few weeks back, I predicted that nanotechnology will be the basis for a $2.6 trillion industry in the year 2015. As if on cue, I received a copy of A Consumer's Guide to MEMS & Nanotechnology, the new book by longtime industry analyst Marlene Bourne. Her book's not aimed at investors, but anyone interested in nanotechnology -- as well as its lesser-known cousin, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) -- will find interesting information within.

An easy introduction to MEMS
The book does a solid job of explaining what MEMS and nanotechnology are, in a non-scientific and user-friendly manner. Bourne describes MEMS as "basically micrometer-sized structures which combine both a mechanical component and electronic circuitry on a single chip." If semiconductors are the brains of an electronic product, she writes, then MEMS are "the eyes, ears, arms and legs that help the brain know what is going on." It's not a perfect analogy, but it sure beats an avalanche of technical mumbo-jumbo.

The MEMS market had sales of nearly $7.8 billion in 2006, and Bourne documents how the devices are being applied in everything from cellphones and TVs to asthma inhalers, wheelchairs, and video games. She even offers a thorough explanation of how MEMS are the "secret sauce" in Nintendo's hit product, the Wii.

The book doesn't focus on specific future MEMS applications. Because the book is intended as a consumer's guide, Bourne only mentions who the leading MEMS manufacturers are -- Freescale Semiconductor, Hitachi, Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) , and Infineon Technologies -- without providing the context that might help average investors determine which firm is best positioned for success. Readers who want to know which company is supplying the most MEMS into the automotive market, or what percentage of the Wii's overall cost can be attributed to MEMS, are out of luck here.

A practical guide to nanotechnology
Many books on nanotechnology focus almost exclusively on its future-oriented aspects. In contrast, Bourne's book details how nanotechnology is being successfully applied to hundreds of existing products today.

At times, the book's focus as a consumer's guide can stray into minutiae. It describes how nanotechnology is being used in everything from deodorant and fishing lures to tattoos, tennis rackets, and toothpaste. Nevertheless, Bourne provides readers with an excellent overview of nanotech's far-reaching impact. She also offers perspective on why companies such as BASF (NYSE: BF  ) , 3M (NYSE: MMM  ) , and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) are investing so aggressively in the field.

As a close follower of nanotechnology, even I was surprised at the myriad opportunities nanotechnology is creating in personal care. From this, it required little imagination to see how a company like Proctor & Gamble -- another big nanotech investor -- could successfully gain a competitive edge by applying tiny tech to its existing line of products.

The Foolish epilogue
The structure of the book can sometimes leave readers' heads spinning; it often crams descriptions of MEMS' and nanotech's role in systems as diverse as air conditioners and lawn products onto a single page. Nonetheless, the amount of information conveyed in its 260 pages is most impressive.

Readers interested in learning more about how IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) are using nanotechnology to improve current semiconductors might also be disappointed; the book doesn't even mention these exciting applications. Nor does it spend much time exploring nanotechnology's role in advancing the energy sector -- most specifically, how it's already improving solar-cell and fuel-cell technology. To be fair, these applications are only in the earliest stages of development, and the book's focus is on existing consumer products.

Therein lies the books true value. Nanotechnology and, to a lesser extent, MEMS, are disruptive technologies. They're going to render existing products and industries obsolete over time, while simultaneously spawning new ones. A quick read of this book offers interested investors a good view of the first stages of this revolution, as well as an early glimpse of where it might all be headed.

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