Back in October, I took a look at investing in the robotics sector, reviewed some of the biggest robotic stocks, and picked out five stocks worthy of close consideration for investors. It's now time to reappraise the five stocks: Deere (NYSE:DE), Zebra Technologies (NASDAQ:ZBRA), Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX), Germany's KION Group (OTC:KIGR.Y), and France's Dassault Systemes (OTC:DASTY), and also add two more stocks to the list -- Switzerland's ABB (NYSE:ABB) and PTC (NASDAQ:PTC).
The two underperformers, Deere and Cognex
Deere's inclusion is down to its precision agriculture solutions, which are increasingly being adopted by customers of Deere's agricultural equipment machinery. The solutions include on-board computers, telematics, and web-enabled sensors, which help farmers use automated guidance technology to manage and guide equipment.
Those solutions will help drive sales in the long term, but in the near term Deere is having to deal with pressure due to farmers being cautious in spending because of the U.S.-China trade war and, arguably more importantly, the impact of African swine fever on demand for soybean meal.
That said, an easing of trade tensions would obviously help Deere, and in the long term U.S. farmers can export crops to markets other than China. However, if you are worried about African swine fever spreading into neighboring countries from China, Deere might be a stock to avoid in the near term.
Machine vision company Cognex has also had a difficult year, at least operationally, due to a slowdown in spending on automation solutions in the automotive and consumer electronics (notably smartphones) industries -- early adopters of automation and robotics, and consequently machine vision technology.
The long-term trend toward increasing penetration of automation and robotics in manufacturing is still in place and will be boosted by the increasing adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technology -- even if 2019 was a year of synchronized, but cyclical, weakness in the automotive and consumer electronics industries.
Zebra keeps running
Zebra Technologies and its data capture and analysis solutions (barcode readers, scanners, and mobile computers) are an essential part of the movement toward smart manufacturing and logistics. If companies are going to increase automation and robotics spending, they are going to have to gather information in order to manage physical assets better -- that's where Zebra comes in.
The company is set for another year of mid-single-digit revenue growth (more of the same is expected in 2020) and remains a prodigious cash generator -- around 15% of sales are expected to convert into free cash flow in 2020. On a P/E ratio of 18 times forward earnings Zebra still looks a good value, even if its strong rise in 2019 meant it was one of the best-performing industrial stocks in the market.
Two European companies -- KION and ABB
KION is No. 1 in Europe in industrial trucks (only Toyota is bigger on the global stage) and the No. 1 global provider of supply chain solutions (material handling solutions for warehouses), with a heavy focus on the U.S. -- two-thirds of its supply chain solutions go to the Americas region.
As such, KION is a company heavily exposed to industrial spending rates and particularly the trend toward warehouse automation spending. The growth of e-fulfillment may boost warehouse automation spending, but industrial spending overall is expected to decline in 2020.
Next year probably don't be a great one for the company. Analysts project revenue growth of just 1.1% next year as the industrial economy slows. Still, the company's stock now trades at 13 times 2020 earnings and 13.7 times free cash flow. For a company with long term growth prospects, that price is too cheap to ignore.
ABB, one of the leading robotics manufacturers in the world, makes the list because of its potential to play catch-up on margins with its main competitors. The company has been a serial underperformer in recent years, but its management is committed to restructuring the company, cutting costs, and focusing the business on digital solutions -- meanwhile paying a hefty dividend. Cautious investors might want to avoid the stock for the moment, but over the long term it presents a value opportunity.
The industrial software plays -- Dassault Systemes and PTC
If companies are going to invest in smart automation, robotics, and IoT solutions, such as digital twins -- digital replicas of physical assets that can be used and simulated in order to make the physical assets run better -- they are going to need industrial software to power the process.
Dassault's solutions, in common with its partner ABB, help companies design, develop, and manage the lifecycle of their products through the creation of digital twins. PTC's ThingWorx platform connects multiple devices that are capturing data and is then used to better analyze and manage physical assets -- the essence of IoT. If the wide-scale adoption of robotics and smart manufacturing is just around the corner, then Dassault and PTC are set for huge growth in the future.