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TheStreet Open House

The Digital Skeptic: Now 'Freenomics' Grinds Manufacturing Into Dust

The iPilling?
What makes Pilling worthy of investor attention is that making tablet and smartphone cases is just the beginning. Pilling actually has his eye on entire tablets. That's correct: This truck parts maker is on track to design, build and ship sophisticated, integrated tablet devices.

"I hope we can compete with the Panasonic Toughpad," he told me a few weeks back. "Their 7-inch Android device is priced at $1,100. I hope we can make something comparable for $300 to 400."

Already there is a fast-growing component parts market in the circuit boards, screens and other digioguts Pilling needs to make his riff on the Apple (AAPL) iPad a reality. The most compelling is the red-hot, $25, credit-card-sized open-source computer called The Raspberry Pi, which has sold 1 million units in less than a year.

The Pi already powers low-cost phones, wireless 3-D desktop printers and digital cameras. And based on books such as Programming for the Raspberry Pi by Simon Monk, even with my third-grade Python skills I can see that a mere tablet will be no biggie.

Sophisticated manufacturers are already trying to get on the right side of this "manufremium" trend. New York-based Bug Labs announced that its open-source hardware tools are being used by none other than stuffy old Ford (F) as part of its OpenXC platform.

And international phone giant Nokia (NOK) announced that it would offer the means to design and build a smartphone case for anybody with access to low-cost 3-D fab tools, including Brooklyn-based MakerBot or Paris-based Sculpteo>.

Wired gets tired
Probably the biggest clue that manufacturing is heading down the same downward Information Age path is that the same digital age hucksters are showing up in manufacturing. No less than the pied piper of the free information economy, Chris Anderson, just quit his high-profile job running the Wired print and digital brand to helm a drone manufacturing firm.

"You can think of the Maker Movement as less about the return of industrial cities in the developed world and more about a new kind of cottage industry," Anderson told ZDNet.

A cottage industry with margins that major manufacturers cannot match.

"I see a fundamental shift in trends that can tilt the balance of power to favor innovation over scale," says Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT on the way to becoming an expert in computer-controlled hardware systems.

Now, will making things join fully the race to oblivion already being run by the adult entertainment and music industries? Probably not. Real things are still real things. So value will be there. But it's also clear that said real things are no longer a hedge against the uncertainties of a world where information is worth less and less every day.

"On the whiteboard in my office I have written in small letters in the corner: 'The future will be just-in-time, made local, contract manufacturing, mass customization.' Because I honestly believe we will all want the same things as our neighbor, just a little different than his," Pilling said.

Which led Pilling to write me the obvious question:

"So how do I go about shorting Apple?"

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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