Proto Lab beats expectations during challenging fourth quarter

Proto Labs predicted growth in 2017 and fourth quarter profits that handily beat analysts' expectations, boosting the stock 12 percent on Thursday.Aided by a rise in 3-D printing orders and by the termination of unprofitable contracts that were part of the...

Proto Lab beats expectations during challenging fourth quarter

Proto Labs predicted growth in 2017 and fourth quarter profits that handily beat analysts' expectations, boosting the stock 12 percent on Thursday.

Aided by a rise in 3-D printing orders and by the termination of unprofitable contracts that were part of the larger Alphaform acquisition, the Maple Plain-based maker of prototypes and quick turn components reported adjusted earnings of $10.8 million or 41 cents a share. Analysts had predicted 39 cents per share.

Revenue narrowly missed expectations. Proto Labs reported that sales for the quarter fell 2 percent to $72.2 million, some $200,000 shy of analysts' average forecasts.

Company officials noted that the quarter was challenged by the high U.S. dollar, unrealized foreign currency gains and one-time costs associated with exiting North Carolina facility leases in favor of company-owned facilities.

"Our fourth quarter financial results continued to reflect the challenges that we faced throughout 2016 with general economic conditions affecting the R&D spending in certain industries, a trend that was felt with greater impact as we closed out the year," said CEO Vicki Holt.

Revenue growth from its computer machining business and its relatively new entrance into 3-D printing helped brace other areas of the company.

Proto Labs has traditionally used high-tech lathes, milling and injection-molding machines to quickly make prototypes and parts for industrial customers. Last year's downturn in global industrial markets stung Proto Labs just as it has other multinational manufacturers.

Proto Labs Chief Financial Officer John Way noted that oil and gas, ag equipment, mining and other industrial sectors were hurt last year — "and those are all our customers."

3-D printing and CNC machine orders were the quarter's two bright spots. They helped offset declines in the company's largest division: injection molding. 3-D printing sales grew 8 percent during the quarter that ended Dec. 31. That growth "remained healthy and we look for continued strong growth in this segment," Holt said.

For full year 2016, revenue grew across all business divisions. Other milestones included strengthening the company's competitive position, management and the integration of its 3-D printing acquisition in Germany. Holt said the company is now poised to enhance the company's 3-D printing reach and operations across Europe.

Separately, the company expanded into new factories in North Carolina and Japan, launched a new "overmolding" product line and expanded its liquid silicone rubber and lathe offerings. The number of engineering customers served jumped 13 percent during the quarter.

All those factors pushed up full year revenue 12 percent to $298.1 million, which was in line with analysts' expectations. Excluding one-time items, adjusted 2016 profits were $47.6 million or $1.79 per share, which was in line with analysts' expectations. Including one time items, 2016 profits fell 8 percent to $42.7 million or $1.61 per share.

For the first quarter of 2017, Proto Labs is forecasting growth, Way said.

"We came off of a quarter where revenue were down sequentially. And so there was concern that we might not be growing off that fourth quarter base," he said. "But we are. We did forecast growth for the first quarter."

The stock rose $6.40 to close at $58 on Thursday.

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