Cognex sells its Surface Inspection division for $160 Million; VDC Speculates What’s Next for the Company

by Richa Gupta | 06/09/2015

Cognex Corporation (CGNX), a leading vendor in the machine vision and industrial scanning markets,announced the acquisition of its Surface Inspection Systems Division (SISD) on June 8, 2015, as part of a $160 million, all-cash deal with AMETEK Inc., a multi-billion dollar manufacturer of electronic instruments and electromechanical devices. While the transaction continues to be subject to closing conditions and regulatory approvals, AMETEK expressed its enthusiasm to have the new SISD department as the latest addition to its Electronic Instrument Group (EIG) product portfolio, a leader in the design and manufacturing of advanced instruments for the process, aerospace, power and industrial markets, which amassed a total of $2.4 billion in sales in 2014. With the strategic sale of its surface inspection business, a division that generated $60 million in sales in 2014, Cognex plans to sharpen its focus on automating discrete manufacturing applications via its Modular Vision Systems Division (includes machine vision and ID products), which accounts for 84% of organizational revenues as of Q1 2015.

Cognex first introduced the SmartView® surface inspection platform in 2000 after the acquisition of Isys Controls, Inc in 1996, a small company that had developed high-performance machine vision systems to automatically detect and classify surface flaws and defects on high value-added materials. Under Cognex, this division now diversifies across verticals with image processing technology that detects, classifies, filters, and maps specific defects on area surface of metals, paper, plastics, nonwovens and glass manufacturing. In addition to the advanced line scan cameras that enable immediate defect detection in high-speed applications, the SmartView® platform also supports global customers with superior detection algorithms, a range of classification and data management software, and technical assistance spread throughout countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, including Japan and China. Asia-Pacific, including Japan, accounted for 40% of SISD revenues in 2014, Americas for 40%, and Europe for 20%. Cognex has installed over 1,000 of its surface inspection systems globally with its customer portfolio including names like AK Steel, USS, Bao Steel, China Steel, TATA, and ArcelorMittal.

Cognex has chosen to sell its surface inspection business despite the 29% sales growth from 2013 to 2014 and record sales levels that this division experienced in Q4 2014, particularly for applications like specialty metal inspection (for Aluminum going into car bodies). VDC believes this can be attributed to the company choosing to exclusively focus on discrete manufacturing and logistics opportunities, coupled with the surface vision division’s relatively lower contribution to overall profitability. SISD gross margin stood at 55% in 2014, which was significantly lower than that of the factory automation division (MVSD) with a 78% gross margin. The complex nature of inspection technology required Cognex to opt for in-house manufacturing at its Hayward, California facility, whereas a majority of MVSD products are outsourced to Asian OEMs (like in Indonesia). This difference in gross margins can also be explained by the high service to product sales ratio in SISD, and the lower yield in margins for service revenues in contrast to product revenues. In 2014, Cognex reported that 30% of SISD revenue was derived from service sales, which included the sale of maintenance & support, training, consulting, and installation. Only 4% of MVSD revenues were from service sales and the remaining 96% were from the higher margin yielding product sales – which include technology systems, hardware, and software.

From VDC’s vantage point, this is a great move by Cognex, which can now focus its attention on existing and emerging opportunities for its machine vision systems and ID products portfolios. The company has experienced much success in the consumer electronics and logistics industries in the past few quarters, a momentum that it can capitalize on going forward by intensifying its product development and sales efforts in these high-growth markets. In its latest earnings call, Cognex outlined the enormous potential it sees with large accounts in these verticals, which the company is very eager to profit from. At the same time, the company will lose out on business in metals in China, which is a particularly appealing market right now because of growth in the automotive sector. That said, revenues from this division have been characteristically lumpy because of timing of deliveries and the impact of revenue deferrals.

Its sale of the surface inspection division will not only make it a more profitable company (higher overall gross margins), but also significantly boosts its cash reserves. Cognex has no long-term debt and, per its most recent annual report, does not anticipate needing debt financing in the near future. This opens up the very distinct possibility of Cognex potentially acquiring another company to achieve one (or more) of the following objectives – boost its engineering talent, grow its logistics customer base, or even build partnerships with leading global material handling systems integrators and solution providers.

(With Jenny Hai, Research Assistant)

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