3D printing company Stratasys Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) is slated to report its first-quarter 2017 earnings before the market opens on Tuesday, May 16. 

Stratasys' stock, which took a beating from 2014 through last year, is having a great 2017. It's gained 81.1% through May 12, crushing the S&P 500's 7.6% total return and outpacing prime rival 3D Systems' (NYSE:DDD) powerful 64% gain.

Industrial 3D printer printing a red plastic object.

Image source: Getty Images.

Benchmarks for key numbers 

Here are Stratasys' year-ago results and Wall Street analysts' estimates to use as benchmarks. 

MetricQ1 2016 ResultQ1 2017 Analyst ConsensusAnalysts' Projected Year-Over-Year Change   
Revenue $167.9 million  $162.7 million (3.2%) 
Adjusted earnings per share (EPS) $0.01  $0.05  400%

Data sources: Stratasys and Yahoo! Finance.

Last quarter, Stratasys crushed earnings expectations and comfortably beat the revenue consensus, though the market sent shares tumbling more than 9% because the company's full-year 2017 guidance came in lighter than analysts were expecting. While long-term investors shouldn't place too much weight on Wall Street's near-term estimates, they can be useful to know since they often help make sense out of market reactions.

For additional context, 3D Systems reported on May 3 that its Q1 revenue increased 2.5%, with roughly 1% of that coming from an acquisition, and its adjusted EPS increased 20% from the year-ago period. The latter result disappointed Wall Street, with the market sending shares down more than 3% the day after earnings were released. 

In addition to the headline numbers, here's what to focus on in Stratasys' report.

Enterprise 3D printer sales

Along with 3D Systems, Stratasys has been struggling to grow revenue since early 2015, mainly because of a widespread slowdown in demand for its enterprise 3D printers.

Ideally, we'd like to see a year-over-year increase in revenue generated from 3D printer sales. However, even a continued improvement in this category would be a positive sign. Stratasys' revenue from 3D printer sales declined 19%, 20%, and 4% year over year, respectively, in the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2016. Last quarter's 4% decline suggests that the bottom for this category could be near. And, in fact, if we see year-over-year growth this quarter, the bottom may be behind the company. That said, one quarter doesn't make a trend, so it might behoove investors to want to see at least two consecutive quarters of year-over-year 3D printer revenue growth before feeling fairly confident that the worse is behind the company.

For some context, 3D Systems' revenue from 3D printer sales continued their year-over-year decline in the first quarter, falling 4%. 

Progress on developing next-generation technologies

Investors can probably count on management giving an update on the conference call on the company's progress in developing its two fused deposition modeling-based techs for production applications: Infinite Build and Robotic Composite. The million-dollar question is: Approximately when can investors expect to see some revenue from these new technologies?

Infinite Building prints on a vertical plane, which allows for a nearly unlimited part size in the build direction, and Robotic Composite uses automation to produce parts made from composite materials. Stratasys has top-name partners on both initiatives: Ford and Boeing on the former and Siemens on both. 

Continue to de-emphasize MakerBot 

Stratasys' MakerBot unit, which sells desktop 3D printers primarily targeted at the educational and professional markets, has also been struggling. However, MakerBot is so much smaller than the enterprise business that it makes less of an impact on Stratasys' total revenue and profitability (excluding when the company took huge goodwill impairment charges for this unit), which is why investors shouldn't pay too much attention to MakerBot.

Moreover, the enterprise 3D printer business drives Stratasys' razor-and-blade-like business model. On average, these printers (the "razors") use significantly more printing material (the "blades") over their lives than do MakerBot's Replicator 3D printers.

In short, Stratasys' long-term success depends upon sales of its enterprise 3D printers, so that's where investors' primary focus should be on Tuesday.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.