Rather than call out its core manufacturing services as legacy businesses, as the previous management team did in the past, Protolabs is doubling down on the value it can provide in each of its two key manufacturing services: injection molding (IM) and CNC machining. On the IM side, Protolabs is now offering seven-day turnaround time in for mold creation, down from 14 days previously. It has also vowed to compete more rigorously for business with longer lead times. This is in contrast to the past, when Protolabs focused almost exclusively on prototypes and part production runs with quick turnaround times. The company intends to use its internal factories primarily, as well as partners to optimally schedule part production.
Similarly in CNC machining, formerly known as First Cut, the company has also achieved success with quick turnaround times, but will now be focused on longer lead time business, as well as leveraging its Hubs partner network to create more exotic parts that cannot be produced in house. The overwhelming majority of revenue from Hubs comes from partners with expertise in CNC machining, which enables Protolabs to offer customers a wider range of volume pricing, part tolerances, part complexity and finish options, such as nickel and black oxide plating. The new strategy also enables Protolabs to make a broader outreach to procurement and supply chain teams, in addition to its core community of product developers.
Another strategic shift for the company is more closely monitoring the profitability of each of its key segments, which include 3-D printing as well as sheet metal fabrication. 3-D printing, which contributes about 14 percent of revenue, is known to be less profitability than CNC machining and injection molding. The company operates several factories, and it is likely that the operations will be scrutinized more closely. Similarly sheet metal fabrication contributes less than five percent of revenue, and an undisclosed level of profitability.
A key advantage that Protolabs holds over digital brokers that claim to offer similar services, is that many companies prefer to deal directly with their manufacturing service provider, particularly for proprietary projects that require close manufacturing tolerances. The ability to visit Protolabs’ facilities and “kick the tires” is a key advantage for the company.
According to what appears to be a credible article in last week’s Bloomberg Technology, Amazon.com is proceeding with plans to create a home robot, through a product development effort that has been code-named Vesta, as part of its Lab126 consumer device division, based in Sunnyvale, California. Lab126, led by Greg Zehr, a former head of R&D for Palm, a pioneer in mobile computing, is credited with the introduction of Kindle e-book reader, and is responsible for the Amazon Echo, FireTV set top boxes, and Fire tablets. It is unclear what purpose an Amazon.com home robot would serve, but in general terms the speculation is that Amazon.com is looking to build on the success of the Amazon Alexa assistant and Echo home speaker product line by creating a roaming version of Alexa, perhaps with the ability to conduct basic house chores.
The authors of the article indicate that prototypes have been built with advanced cameras, and that Max Paley, a former Apple executive, is working on computer vision technologies for a home robot. The Bloomberg article suggests that Amazon.com plans to “seed” robots in homes by the end of this year, and could potentially launch a commercial robot sometime in calendar 2019. The article also indicated that based on Amazon’s prototypes and tests, it may choose not to enter the market.
Is Amazon.com’s Entry Plausible?
Despite its failure in the smart phone market, Amazon.com has emerged as a prolific consumer electronics product company, having made a number of successful bets, most notably having created the e-book market with the Kindle, and more recently creating the market for smart home assistants, via Alex and Echo. Importantly, Amazon has had its greatest success in categories that it creates. In the Kindle e-reader category, Amazon used to have some competition from the Nook, but not much anymore. Google, which is looking to parlay its success with Google Assistant into the Google Home product line, is playing a severe game of catch up to Amazon.com, as the Echo device family holds a more than two-to-one market share advantage against the Google Home product. Alphabet recently merged its Nest division, which provides, smart thermostats, smoke detectors, webcams, and home alarm systems, into its Google hardware division, suggesting that the Google assistant will be more tightly integrated into Google’s smart home offerings.
At this point it remains unclear what Amazon.com’s product and delivery plans are for the smart home, beyond continued updates to the Echo device family. Amazon.com has a growing base of talented engineers, and proven expertise in addressing the smart home, through the success of Alexa and Echo. Amazon also owns its own robotics company as a result of the $750 million acquisition of Kiva Systems back in 2012. Kiva has been focused on robots for warehouse fulfillment operations, and it is unclear whether the robotic R&D efforts of Kiva, based on the East Coast, and Lab123, are linked.
Our sense is that Amazon.com has many of the pieces in pace to create some type of consumer robot. The question we have is how long it would take Amazon to commercialize a product, and what tasks it would perform. Another key question is whether Amazon.com will choose to enter the market at all, given the large number of other product opportunities that it has under consideration.
With trailing twelve month sales of $289 million, and a market cap of roughly $1.6 billion, Proto Labs, based in Maple Plain Minnesota, is the largest provider of quick turn manufacturing services, with offerings for plastic and metal-machined parts. Through the use of patented technology for plastic injection molding and CNC machining, as well as an advanced web-based ordering system, PRLB is an outsourced partner to its more than 8,000 customers, who seek help in creating prototypes as well as production runs of up to 10,000 parts. In addition, PRLB has acquired a couple of companies that provide 3D printed part services, which collectively account for about 13 percent of sales.
Proto Labs provides customers with the crucial benefits of faster time to market, improved product quality, and the ability to quickly customize low volume production runs. With seven manufacturing facilities around the world, Proto Labs derives less than 25 percent of its revenue from overseas operations. The company’s customers include manufacturers and designers of medical devices, cars, aerospace, defense, and aviation products, as well as consumer electronics, and industrial machinery. Each quarter, Proto Labs conducts a high level of repeat business within its customer base, typically around 80 percent. Importantly, no customer accounted for more than two percent of sales in 2015.
Large industrial manufacturers have been reluctant in the past, for a variety of reasons, to outsource prototyping and production. The reasons relate to the desire to maintain captive production of prototypes and custom parts, and the preference to keep low volume manufacturing in house. However, the trend toward mass customization, in which consumers desire near custom-built products in smaller quantities with fast turnaround times is at odds with the core competency of many manufacturers who are unable to achieve the desired unit costs that come with low volume production. Outsourcing production also allows companies to concentrate on other core competencies, such as product design, marketing, distribution, and customer service.
However, recent challenges attendant to soft demand in the industrial machinery vertical, as well as challenges in integrating the Alphaform 3D printed parts service will weigh on sales growth and margin expansion.
Soft Demand in North America
Proto Labs’ Q2 revenue of $75 million grew by 17 percent over the prior, including the results of Alphaform, a 3-D printing operation which was acquired last year, and contributed nearly $5 million in revenue in Q2. US revenue, which accounts for 74 percent of sales, grew by just six percent versus the prior year, the slowest rate in a couple of years. Despite the fact that no single customer accounts for more than two percent of sales, Proto Labs is seeing weakness in its top 20 accounts, and cited industrial and commercial equipment as particularly soft verticals in the quarter. Importantly, plastic, rubber and die cast injection molders and machine shops, who normally outsource prototypes and low volume production runs to Proto Labs, are now doing more in-house manufacturing of these parts and prototypes, due to their own excess capacity.
Proto Labs is also seeing project delays. CNC Machining operations, which normally account for about a quarter of quarterly sales, were relatively weak, rising by just seven percent over the prior year. Bright spots during the quarter include relatively strong performance from both Europe and Japan, which account for 23 percent, and three percent of sales, respectively. Europe, excluding the contribution from Alphaform, grew by 24 percent, and Japan grew by 46 percent.
Despite a soft quarter, Proto Labs’ quality of reporting remains consistently strong. During the second quarter PRLB generated $20 million in cash from operations and allocated $14.1 million to capital expenditures, of which $8 million were for facilities, as the company is adding capacity in North Carolina, and in Japan. As a result, cash on the balance sheet increased by $7 million on a sequential basis.
Alphaform, a German-based 3D printing operation acquired at the end of 2015, remains an integral part of Proto Labs’ strategy to accelerate its European operations in the 3D printed parts services business. 3D printing contributed $9.1 million in revenue in Q2, flat with the preceding quarter, and up 67 percent versus the prior year. However, the growth was almost entirely due to the addition of Alphaform last year. When excluding the $4.8 million contribution from Alphaform, 3-D printer revenue growth was nominal.
Alphaform diluted the company’s gross margin by 310 basis points, a pattern which has been the case since the company was acquired. The lingering impact of certain Alphaform contracts with lower gross margins, as well as several niche businesses such as metal and magnesium injection molding, which are in the process of being discontinued by Proto Labs, contributed to relatively weak margins in the quarter.
Sales Management Disruption
Back in April of 2016, Proto Labs disclosed that its VP of global sales had resigned. Since then, the company has been hiring new sales managers, in an effort to reduce the ratio of sales managers to sales people. Proto Labs has also engaged a consulting firm to examine its sales processes and recommend new ones, pending their conclusions. The company is also in the process of hiring a new chief revenue officer, which it expects to do by the end of the calendar year.
Despite the above-mentioned growth pains, overall, we see Proto Labs as among the best positioned manufacturing technology companies. Proto Labs maintains a strong balance sheet, with total cash and securities of $164 million, or $6.18 in cash per share, and no debt. The company maintains a conservative current ratio of 6.3, and accounts receivable DSOs were a modest 41 days at the end of the quarter, up by just a day versus the prior year. Return on equity was 15 percent on a trailing twelve month basis, consistent with prior periods. Importantly, Proto Labs has done nothing to stretch its quarterly performance, and maintains a high quality of reporting integrity. The company’s expertise in manufacturing materials and production should continue to position it well for the long term.
On April 4, 2016, following a six month search, the board of directors of 3D Systems (3DS hereafter) appointed Vyomesh Joshi, aka VJ, as president and CEO. The appointment occurred as the venerable manufacturer of 3D printers attempts to regain its footing, following an extended period of questionable acquisitions, loss of market focus, and damaged credibility among investors.
Joshi, aged 62, had been president of the Imaging and Printing Group of Hewlett Packard for 11 years, beginning in February 2001, and left as EVP in March of 2012, bringing to a close a 31-year career at HP, after HP, in one of its many reorganizations in the last number of years, combined printers and personal computers into the same business unit. While leading the $26 billion H-P printer business, Joshi doubled the division’s operating profit. Joshi appears to have been lured out of near-retirement with a stock and options package worth a potential $27 million, based in large part on 3DS’ future stock performance. Joshi is currently on the board of directors of both Wipro (NYSE: WIT) and Harris Corporation (NYSE: HRS). He received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from L.D. College in Ahmedabad, India, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Ohio State University.
Joshi replaces 3D Systems’ highly flamboyant and acquisitive CEO Avi Reichental. Over the last few years 3DS has endured numerous set-backs, including an over-emphasis on acquisitions for growth, missteps in the consumer printer market, distribution channel challenges, product quality issues, a delay in the filing of its 2015 10-K, along with a lack of investor confidence, which has resulted in a more than 80 percent contraction in its share price since peaking at $97.25 in late 2013.
Since taking the helm at 3DS Joshi has been somewhat coy regarding future plans, but has noted the company’s lack of operational efficiency, and the challenge to build a sustainable corporate culture from among the company’s employee base of roughly 2,500, many of whom have come to 3DS via acquisition. In mid-June 3DS announced it had hired John N. McMullen, age 58, as VP Finance and CFO, replacing David Styka. McMullen had most recently been at Eastman Kodak, where he took the helm as CFO beginning in June of 2014. Prior to that, McMullen, was SVP Finance and Corporate Treasurer, as well as CFO of HP’s Imaging and Printing Group, where he worked alongside 3DS’ new CEO, Joshi.
The new management team will have much to confront, including helping customers sift through the reality versus the hype of 3D printing, along with the need to create printers with faster speeds and more precision to produce parts that can be used in volume production, in addition to prototypes utilized for visualization and marketing purposes. 3DS has, along with many of its competitors, from time to time over the last three years, produced printers with varying levels of product quality.
With regard to Joshi’s future strategy, we can gain a glimpse into his thinking. In an address before the Net Impact Conference at Stanford in November of 2005, Joshi spoke of the elements required to create a sustainable business. These include: identifying holes in the market, developing appropriate price models, establishing business partnerships, fostering trust and respect among employees, and providing leadership that puts business first, people second, and the egos of managers third.
With trailing 12 month sales of $546 million, and a market cap of $680 million, Brooks Automation (NASDAQ: BRKS), based in Chelmsford Massachusetts, is a leading provider of automation equipment and services to the semiconductor, LED, and consumer electronics industries, which collectively account for 80 percent of sales. Life sciences accounts for the remainder, and is comprised of biological sample storage systems, consumables, and services, which leverage Brooks’ core competence in cryogenic and automated manufacturing equipment.
The cyclical semiconductor business remains Brooks’ largest and most profitable segment, where it serves over 200 OEM customers, including Applied Materials (NASDAQ: AMAT), Tokyo Electron (OTC: TOELY), Lam Research (NASDAQ: LRCX), and KLA-Tencor (NASDAQ: KLAC), who are in the midst of merger discussions. Brooks also conducts business directly with many of the leading semiconductor device makers, including Samsung, Toshiba, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (NYSE: TSMC), and Micron (NASDAQ: MU). Over the last several months, Brooks has begun to see growing demand for its vacuum robots, and contamination and control solutions, which comprise about 40 percent of semi cap equipment sales.
Four years ago Brooks embarked on a strategy to divest non-core businesses, expand in the semiconductor equipment business, and diversify into life sciences, primarily through acquisition. Brooks Life Sciences parlays the company’s core competencies in cryogenics and automation into the cold storage, retrieval, and tagging of biological samples. Brooks has acquired five companies in the last four years, and the division now claims over 100 customers, including the top 20 drug and biotech companies.
The all-cash $128 million acquisition of privately-held, BioStorage Technologies, an Indiana-based provider of sample management services, was completed late last year. The business is on track to generate over $40 million revenue, and in doing so, has enabled the life sciences segment to achieve a $100 million annualized run rate, with services and consumables accounting for about 60 percent of the total. Though not yet profitable, Brooks Automation narrowed the operating loss in the segment to $2 million in the March 31 quarter, and with a recent restructuring, targets profitability by the end of the September quarter.
Three key swing factors will determine Brooks Automation’s fate over the coming year, specifically whether it:
As Brooks confronts the above-mentioned challenges, the company provides investors with a degree of downside protection, given its historically strong free cash flow generation, a good balance sheet, with $68 million in cash, or $1.00 per share, no debt, a tangible book value of $3.61 per share, and a compelling valuation vis-à-vis its SMID cap peers in the semiconductor capital equipment business. The company also investors with a dividend, whose current yield is four percent.
With trailing 12 month sales of $318 million, a market cap of $473 million, $150 million in cash and no debt, FARO Technologies is a leading provider of three-dimensional (3D) measurement and imaging devices. The Lake Mary Florida company has over 200 patents, and several hundred more pending on a global basis. The company’s patents will expire on a rolling basis between now and 2024.
With roughly 15,000 customers and 30,000 product installations across the globe, FARO serves a prestigious customer base, which includes the leading OEM manufacturers in the automotive and aerospace markets, such as GM, Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen/Audi, Jaguar, Nissan, Boeing, the US Military, and Airbus. Importantly, FARO maintains a low level of customer concentration, and much of its business comes from second and third tier suppliers to OEMs in its key markets. For all of 2014, the company’s top ten customers accounted for less than five percent of sales. In the third quarter of 2015, the top five customers accounted for 6.2 percent of sales. In a typical quarter about 70 percent of sales come from the company’s installed base, while new customers contribute the remainder.
FARO Technologies is best known for its Arm product, which provides precise 3D measurement of mechanical objects, and has seen strong traction across most industrial verticals. FARO’s Focus laser scanner product, believed to be the company’s second strongest selling product, has achieved some success in industrial applications, but has been facing competitive pricing pressure more recently, particularly in the price sensitive architectural engineering and construction (AEC) vertical market, the laser scanner’s largest vertical. The company also offers the FARO Laser Tracker, a portable coordinate measuring machine for large volume 3D measurement.
FARO Technologies faces competition from a number of global competitors, including Hexagon AB of Norway, Trimble Navigation, Topcon, as well as other niche providers, such as Steinbichler of Germany. Current foreign exchange rate dynamics have emboldened FARO’s European competitors to attempt to gain market share, thus exploiting the relative strength of the US dollar.
We remain optimistic regarding FARO Technologies’ longer term growth prospects, despite currency headwinds and macro conditions that began to emerge in the first quarter of 2015. We are impressed by FARO’s solid technology and strong customer base, though 2015 has proven to be a transition year in which the company faced numerous market and foreign exchange challenges. During this period turnover in the company’s executive ranks has been significant, particularly in light of the recent resignation of the company’s long-standing and hard-charging CEO and president Jay Freeland.
That said, the company has announced an ambitious organizational and growth strategy under the leadership of interim CEO Dr. Simon Raab, who is also a company co-founder. Recently appointed CFO Laura Murphy brings significant operational experience to the company, with experience at Philips and Ford Motor Company. Despite its challenges, FARO retains an excellent balance sheet overall, with $150 million in cash, no debt, and re-purchased $23 million of its common stock in the fourth quarter, under a $41 million share repurchase authorization.