How 3D Systems Became the Market’s Best-Performing Stock in 2012

Now that 2012's nearly in the rearview mirror, investors are beginning to sift through the market for the best stocks of the upcoming year. The future is plagued with uncertainty, but that has always been the case, and it's never stopped us from seeking out long-term values. One way to find those values is to look for companies with a history of success -- and you'd be hard-pressed to find a stock that's had greater success in 2012 than 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) , a company on the vanguard of one of the world's hottest technology trends.

First-half recap
If you're reading this, odds are that you're well aware of 3D Systems' incredible stock price growth, which has made it a three-bagger  just in the past year. But how has 3D Systems done on a fundamental basis? Examining a few snapshots of its recent financial performance can help us figure out what's behind the growth of its stock:

Market Cap

$2.7 billion

P/E and Forward P/E

67.6 and 32.9

Price to Free Cash Flow

54.0

TTM Revenue Growth

51.7%

TTM Net Income Growth

(2.2%)

TTM Free Cash Flow Growth

70.9% 

MRQ Revenue

$322 million

MRQ Net Income / Loss

$36 million

MRQ Free Cash Flow

$50 million

2013 Projected Growth Rate

27.6% 

Sources: Morningstar, Yahoo! Finance, and YCharts. TTM = trailing 12 months. MRQ = most recent quarterly.

What the numbers don't tell you
It's pretty hard to argue with a 52% increase in annualized net income, especially when it's paired with a 71% increase in free cash flow over the same time period. In contrast, 3D Systems' printing peer Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) has only improved its revenue by 28%, and its trailing 12-month free cash flow has declined significantly  from the year-ago period, largely as a result of inventory growth . That may change next year when Stratasys moves forward as the new top dog in 3-D printing after completing its merger with Objet. For the time being, however, 3D Systems has had the better fundamentals in 2012.

3D Systems started 2012 off with a bang at the Consumer Electronics Show, where it unveiled a consumer-focused low-end 3-D printer (whew, so many hyphens) that retails for $1,299. That accelerated the five-year timetable I issued for wider 3-D printing adoption, which I compared to inexpensive Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) printers that captured a significant slice of the market once HP pushed the unit price below four figures. I've since backed off of that prediction somewhat, because I've come to understand that the complexity of printing 3-D objects demands high levels of precision, as well as the ability to use varied materials. The Cube displays neither of these traits, but it is a step toward mass use.

Since then, 3D Systems has continued to gobble up virtually every smaller 3-D printing company it can find, and it has even acquired several seemingly unrelated medical companies in a bid to boost the breadth of its health care offerings. The health care division was one of 3D Systems' fastest growing segments in the third quarter, although less than a third of that growth was generated organically. While we're on the subject of organic growth, let's talk about the company's most recent controversy -- too many acquisitions!

A brouhaha in November over 3D Systems' organic growth rate led the company to hold a press conference rebutting the claims. Although the original argument, hosted on Seeking Alpha, used an incorrect interpretation of GAAP accounting, it did highlight the fact that 3D Systems has been a very acquisitive company in recent years. Since 2009, 3D Systems has bought 31 companies. It's done a very good job integrating these various acquisitions into its business model, but investors should ask themselves whether or not further acquisitive opportunities exist as they have over the past few years. Between 3D Systems and Stratasys, there isn't much left to acquire besides some consumer-focused operations, and those -- for the time being -- seem adamant about remaining independent.

I began this year firmly in 3D Systems' corner, but its incredible growth leaves me skeptical of similar future gains. The market is littered with high-flying stocks that made one misstep and lost years' worth of gains. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR  ) is an obvious comparison, as both companies are dogged by patent issues surrounding popular devices -- 3D Systems recently filed suit against 3-D printing start-up Formlabs over a key stereolithography patent. Green Mountain tumbled after missing expectations, although it continues to grow at an impressive clip. That's something to be aware of as 3D Systems finds itself with fewer acquisition targets.

On the other hand, 3-D printing is undeniably a very interesting technology that's been improving at a very aggressive pace. In the past year, we've seen 3-D printers create all manner of objects, from replacement bones to cupcakes, prop Aston Martins to assault rifles. As the technology matures, it's bound to find greater use in consumer applications, as was the case for computers and the Internet years ago. Will 3D Systems remain in the lead? That remains to be seen. However, investors in 2012 have found little to complain about while holding onto this rocket stock. 

3D Systems is at the leading edge of a disruptive technological revolution, with the broadest portfolio of 3-D printers in the industry. However, despite years of earnings growth, 3D Systems' share price has risen even faster, and today the company sports a dizzying valuation. To help investors decide whether the future of additive manufacturing is bright enough to justify the lofty price tag on the company's shares, The Motley Fool has compiled a premium research report on whether 3D Systems is a buy right now. In our report, we take a close look at 3D Systems' opportunities, risks, and critical factors for growth. You'll also find reasons to buy or sell, and receive a full year of analyst updates with the report. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.


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