Hey, it's past 2015 and I still don't have that hoverboard that Back to the Future 2 said we would have by now. What gives?
A lot of the futuristic technology of our former sci-fi movies aren't here yet, but some of the things that we are looking at doing today -- communication, energy, artificial intelligence -- are way beyond that even the most ambitious sci-fi writer ever imagined.
So we asked three of our investing contributors to each highlight a company building the future. Here's why they picked IPG Photonics (NASDAQ:IPGP), First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR), and Daimler AG (OTC:DDAI.F).
Lasers are the tool of the future
Brian Stoffel (IPG Photonics): As far as commercially viable fiber-optic lasers go, IPG Photonics was the birthplace of the technology. For a long time, that didn't matter, as the lasers weren't powerful enough to match standards in a host of industries.
But under the guidance of founder and CEO Valentine Gapontsev, the lasers have gotten more and more powerful and precise, while requiring less energy to function. Add in the fact that IPG is the only vertically integrated player in its niche, and that yields an important cost advantage over the competition.
All of these factors have started to converge to help make IPG a company building the world of tomorrow. While the lasers have traditionally been used to cut huge pieces of metal, they are seeing increased adoption in other fields, like communications, consumer electronics, and medicine.
Because of these new applications -- and increased demand from China -- revenue has jumped 20% per year over the past two-and-a-half years while earnings have grown at a 21% rate over the same time frame. But management believes that only one-third of lasers used for cutting are fiber optic, meaning there's still plenty of room for growth.
The next phase in energy
Tyler Crowe (First Solar): In the history of energy consumption, once a new fuel source becomes cost competitive, it typically enjoys a window of 30-50 years of exponential growth. We already saw this trend play out with coal (1860-1910), petroleum (1920-1960), and natural gas (1930-1960). Over those time periods, the cost to generate power from these sources declined considerably and made energy that much more accessible to everyone and encouraged greater use. Today, solar energy has reached that cost threshold where the per-megawatt-hour costs of utility-scale solar installations are on par with other sources without subsidies.
If history is any indication, we are still in the very early innings of what could possibly be the next monumental shift in global energy production, and First Solar is one of the companies at the leading edge of that trend. The company continues to advance solar power technology to improve efficiency and economics. Its newest offering -- the Series 6 panel -- should be a major leap forward in panel efficiency, which will improve the economics of solar power even further. That will be key in the coming years as Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that global capital spending for energy will be $10.2 trillion between now and 2040. That is a massive market to capture, and it's looking like Solar power is set to enjoy the exponential growth we have seen with other energy sources in the past.
Investing in solar power has been like the Wild West over the past several years. Companies have gone bankrupt left and right as technology improves and quickly becomes a commodity product. First Solar has remained above the fray with its panels and has consistently been one of the most profitable business in this industry. If it can maintain this position, there is an incredible growth runway for this company.
Electric trucks? Forget Tesla
I have a message for those investors and for anyone else who thinks electric trucks and self-driving technology are worth investing in: Take a look at these two photos.
Do you see what I see? For once, Tesla might be late to the party.
Daimler AG is the corporate parent of Mercedes-Benz, the brand behind that badge. Daimler also owns several other heavy-truck and bus brands; it's a major player in the global market for light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks.
It's no secret to most investors that Mercedes-Benz is making big investments in self-driving systems and electric drivetrains for its luxury cars. But what you might not know is that Daimler is also very focused on the huge potential markets for electric trucks, including long-haul heavy trucks that can drive themselves in automated convoys.
In fact, Daimler just became the first company to put an all-electric commercial truck into production, a light-duty delivery truck for use in cities. There's much more to come, including a heavy-duty electric truck due in 2021 and a system called Highway Pilot that will automate truck convoys to reduce the costs of long-haul freight transport.
As an investment, Daimler looks pretty good, with a current valuation of just over eight times 2016 earnings. CEO Dieter Zetsche has kept the balance sheet strong while launching highly regarded new products and investing to keep the company in the forefront of emerging technologies. It pays a steady dividend that yields about 4.9% at current prices.
Long story short: It could take a few years for all of Daimler's technology to pay off. But if you reinvest that nice dividend while you wait, you could be quite pleased with the result in a few years.