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This Just In: Upgrades and Downgrades

At The Motley Fool, we poke plenty of fun at Wall Street analysts and their endless cycle of upgrades, downgrades, and "initiating coverage at neutral." Today, we'll show you whether those bigwigs actually know what they're talking about. To help, we've enlisted Motley Fool CAPS to track the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and worst.

Who's hot and who's not in 3-D printing stocks
It's been a busy few days for investors in the nascent industry of three-dimensional "printing."

Last week, one of the industry's pioneers, 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) reported record high revenues and earnings. But because the company missed analysts' revenue estimates ever so slightly, and gave guidance that fell similarly short of expectations, the shares shed 10% of their value post earnings. Analysts, however, stuck fast by the firm, with no downgrades yet sighted.

A few days later, 3D Systems' archrival Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) reported its earnings "crushing" -- in the words of one Fool analyst -- expectations on both the top and bottom lines. In response to that news, Stratasys actually earned itself an upgrade, as Needham & Co. pronounced itself won over to the stock's side: "Since the merger in early December with Objet," noted Needham, Stratasys has grown revenues 23% pro forma, maintained "solid high-teens operating margins," and promised to keep up the momentum with revenue growth of between 20% and 24%. Based on these numbers, Needham says it expects Stratasys to report as much as $1.95 per share in profit this year, then grow that number 29% to $2.52 in 2014.

Introducing some new names
Undisputed earnings success at Stratasys, and strong performance (even if investors aren't recognizing it as such) at 3D Systems is starting to attract competition, though. This week, a little-known penny stock with big-league aspirations, going by the name Massive Dynamics (NASDAQOTH: MSSD  ) (alluding to the tech conglomerate in Fox's television show Fringe) announced it is entering the 3-D market with a purchase of Hong Kong producer PrintForge 3D Ltd. Profitless, revenue-less, and selling for only $0.64 a share, Massive Dynamics isn't truly a threat to any of the incumbents yet -- but its announcement is just further evidence that 3-D printing is starting to catch investors' imaginations.

A more serious contender, perhaps, is recent IPO ExOne (NASDAQ: XONE  ) , which scored a trio of new buy ratings when analysts began rating it on Monday. FBR Capital extolled ExOne's "ability to print in sand and metal at relatively fast speeds and low costs," and predicted the $26 stock could hit $32 within a year. (Stephens also initiated at $32.) BB&T Capital did both of these analysts one better, though, and initiated the stock with a $34 price target -- a potential 28% gain from today's prices.

Like its fellows, BB&T's buy thesis hinges on the understanding that among incumbent players "plastic-based 3-D printing is more common than metal based printing," giving ExOne a key differentiator in its business. According to BB&T, ExOne's "metal-based printing business should drive accelerating adoption and growth."

Reality check
Personally, I'm more impressed by hard facts than pretty promises. For that reason, I'm not as enthusiastic as these analysts about "story stocks" like ExOne or Massive Dynamics (cool name notwithstanding). But if truth be told... I'm not all that hot on 3D Systems or Stratasys, either.

Why not? Well, to begin with, at 72 times and 80 times earnings, respectively, I simply don't believe the stocks will earn their way into their valuations any time soon (or any time not soon, either). More importantly, though, the main reason so far that investors have been willing to pay through the nose to own a piece of these companies is because there weren't any other companies to buy in the alternative. 3D Systems. Stratasys. That was basically it for opportunities to invest in 3-D printing. If you wanted a piece of the action, you had to pay up for it.

No more. Now that ExOne and Massive-D have arrived on the scene, there finally are alternatives -- and I expect them, and perhaps more credible competitors to follow, to begin siphoning away the enthusiasm for 3D's and Stratasys' overpriced equities. For now, I see only one direction for these stocks to go, and that direction is down.

Next in line
Who's most likely to present a credible threat to Stratasys and 3D Systems, and at a more reasonable price? The future's uncertain, but if I had to lay odds, I'd keep a close eye on Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) . The company's no longer allied with Stratasys, true. But it was once, and has presumably gained some understanding of the 3-D printing process from its association with the upstart.

Meanwhile, no one knows printing, and the economics of it, better than H-P. Hurting for growth opportunities as its core "2-D" printing and PC businesses sag, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see Hewlett-Packard take a second look at the 3-D printing industry as a way to buck up its fortunes.

An acquisition or two in the industry -- maybe targeting popular, privately held MakerBot? -- could add a proverbial 800-pound tech gorilla to the mix here. And with H-P shares currently selling for less than six-times forward earnings, I suspect a move into the industry would win H-P a lot of fans among individual investors, and do more than a little damage to the popularity of stocks like 3D Systems and Stratasys, which up until now, have had this game all to themselves.

Which is why 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 the stock today. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2013, at 1:02 PM, TangoXray7 wrote:

    Rich, you write " BB&T's buy thesis hinges on the understanding that among incumbent players "plastic-based 3-D printing is more common than metal based printing," giving ExOne a key differentiator in its business."

    I think if you examine ExOne's web site you'll find they don't really have what I'd call an "industrial strength" (pun intended) metal printing solution. The process they use, which is admittedly unique, is very limited; it depends on a final step in the process which is to fill the holes in a kiln sintered part with a bronze alloy. This is the result of not using a selective or direct metal laser process to fabricate the part in a single step as is done using 3D's patented process.

    By requiring the part be filled with bronze, ExOne takes itself out of competition for customers that would rather not make bronze parts. Aircraft manufacturers, along with medical and dental implant makers would be good examples of those markets.

    Another weakness in ExOne's process is it requires the glued part, which is very fragile after the initial printing step, to be moved to a kiln for sintering. I can't see that scaling well to even a small production environment.

    So even though ExOne is now the only competition in the US for DDD's metal fabrication capabilities, it doesn't appear a strong contender to me given those limitations. If you're really excited about 3D printing in metals you would be better advised to look at 3D Systems, or perhaps pink sheets in EOS, a German corporation that also produce machines capable of directly printing metal parts in many different media.

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2013, at 1:34 PM, TangoXray7 wrote:

    BTW, there are also a few privately held companies in the US that sell machines capable of fully dense metal part production. I probably made a mistake mentioning EOS in Germany, I believe they're also privately held as is Concept Laser, another manufacturer of machines capable of printing fully dense metal parts. There's another private company in Arizona that build machines that do laser based metal part printing.

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2013, at 1:44 PM, TangoXray7 wrote:

    I also misspoke when I wrote "the only competition in the US for..." I should have written "the only publicly traded competition..."

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2013, at 6:23 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    Now I'm waiting in anticipation of ExOne coming up with an advertising campaign based on their cutting edge, Bronze Age technology ...

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