A Deep Dive Into 3D Systems, Part 9: Is will.i.am a Warning Sign?

If you're an investor in 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) , you've got to be concerned about the very large drop in the company's share price since the high it reached at the beginning of the year.

But another 3D Systems event may be potentially more concerning -- and, anecdotally, causing some investors to question the sanity of CEO Avi Reichental. Less than a week after shares peaked, 3D Systems announced that it had hired William Adams, aka will.i.am, co-founder of hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas, as its "chief creative officer." Let's answer two crucial questions here: Is 3D Systems kidding? And can this move be anything other than a fiasco?

Digging in further
According to the company, "Mr. William James Adams, also known as Will.I.Am ... inspires, shape [sic] and drive [sic] all of 3D Systems' initiatives to mainstream the use of 3D printing through major collaborations with creative brand partners, innovative global campaigns and educational grand challenges designed to grow the popularity of 3D printing." Sounds pretty lame, doesn't it?

However, if you want to be a good investor, you should dig in further to find out why companies do what they do, rather than making snap judgments. If you do in this case, you might go from calling the act "crazy" to dubbing it "possibly all right."

For instance, Adams has long been interested in tech and is a big proponent of STEM education (referring to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). He's focusing on it for his personal charity designed to help poor youth in L.A. get a good education, something that boosted him out of his own disadvantaged beginnings. Partly as a stunt, but also to raise awareness of what NASA does for kids, he persuaded NASA to have a Mars rover beam back one of his group's songs. He also teamed with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to host a STEM innovation competition in 2012.

He also seems to throw ideas off like sparks. A Fortune article published a year before 3D Systems hired him included this quote: "'Not everything he spews is a brilliant idea,' admits longtime friend and video producer Ben Mor. 'But every seventh is.'" (Emphasis in the original.)

Adams serves a similar role at Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) , which many there consider real; he's not a paid celebrity spokesman. From an excerpt of that same Fortune article, it's clear that Adams meets regularly with people at Intel: "'I don't think of Will as an endorser at all,' says Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist with Intel Labs. 'I think of him as part of our conversation about what the future is. His input is invaluable.'"

Wired magazine had a pretty good profile of Adams in its August 2013 issue. It highlighted his own company, "i.am+," and its first product, a snap-on camera for the Apple iPhone 4 and 4s, called foto.sosho. That product did get poor reviews from Gizmodo in early 2013, and it might not be selling well. However, Adams isn't apparently afraid of failure (another important trait for a creative person). He said that if the foto.sosho doesn't work out, "Well, then I've made something cool for myself," according to a blog post at Addicted2Success earlier this year.

What was interesting, however, is that nobody asked a question about the addition of Adams to the C-level suite during 3D Systems's earnings conference call for Q4 2013, and it wasn't mentioned in the recently filed 10-K, either. Apparently, Wall Street is ignoring the whole thing, and 3D Systems is not pushing it in their faces.

Conclusion
3D Systems wasn't kidding when it brought Adams on board. And his presence has the potential to actually benefit the company, especially if one of his ideas turns out to lead to new products. At worst, 3D Systems's decision to hire Adams will probably prove a neutral move.

It's not clear how much he'll be able to help 3D Systems in dreaming up new things to do with additive manufacturing or whatever else his creative mind generates. I don't believe anything has come from his work with Intel quite yet, but that probably doesn't mean much. As long as he's throwing off ideas, one or more of them is likely to turn out to have value, as one of his colleagues said. As long as the deal isn't costing too much (and the company didn't reveal the terms of the deal), it shouldn't be a negative.

Investors aren't the only ones questioning what 3D Systems is doing, though. So is money manager Whitney Tilson. Next, I look at the first of three bear arguments against 3D Systems, starting with Tilson's.

Readers can find each article in the series by clicking here

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