Fellow Fool Dave Meier recently tagged industrial conglomerate 3M (NYSE:MMM) as a potential higher-return, lower-risk investment. A recent downbeat earnings report sent the shares down as well, and a more recent 10-K filing might just help Fools look forward by observing past business trends, which are definitely worth checking out.

3M operates in just about any industrial capacity you can think of, producing adhesives, abrasives, labels, and related services. Consumers may know the company best for its Scotch Masking Tape and Post-it notes, but 3M sells thousands of products across the globe. In fact, more than 60% of its sales are made overseas, making geographic diversity another appealing investment merit.

The company has been able to grow consistently over the years by innovating to bring new products to market. It also keeps a tight lid on costs by focusing on technology to more efficiently manufacture and distribute goods. Acquisitions form another key growth avenue, as 3M looks to buy its way into new markets. On Tuesday, the company announced plans to purchase U.K.-based E Wood Holdings, a manufacturer of protective coatings, for $78 million, continuing a long-term track record of buying out firms with leading industrial product offerings.

3M is considered a peer among well-respected blue-chip firms with stellar track records of outgrowing their markets through acquisitions and innovation. Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) comes to mind, as do industrial giants General Electric (NYSE:GE), Honeywell (NYSE:HON), and United Technologies (NYSE:UTX). Each is a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, has grown to a leadership position in its served markets, and constantly finds profitable ways to reinvest the ample amounts of cash flow generated from operations.

Lately though, investors have started to worry that 3M may be losing some of its mojo. Operating cash flow has decreased two years running, and growing capital expenditures have led to a double crunch on the firm's still massive free cash flow generation.

Fourth-quarter earnings missed analyst expectations as housing woes hit 3M's roofing and other construction goods. Management also suspects global economic growth is slowing and lowered its projections for the year, sending the stock down to the low $70s. Shares recovered slightly as the company announced a massive $7 billion stock buyback program last month, but they still only trade at about 16.5 times forward earnings.

Throw in a 2.5% dividend yield, low levels of debt, and a decade-long track record of double-digit earnings growth, and you have the potential for a solid investment in one of the more innovative, lower-risk firms out there. There may be volatility through the next year, but a long-term horizon could work out nicely for investors in 3M.

3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Discover more of the market's best bargains with a free 30-day trial subscription.

Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann has no financial interest in any company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.