Login | October 19, 2017

Battle of the bots

MALCOLM BERKO
Taking Stock

Published: August 3, 2017

Dear Mr. Berko: A co-worker told about a company called Momentum Machines. It makes robots that can make 400 made-to-order hamburgers an hour. The robots apply ketchup, add pickles or lettuce, hold the mustard, grill the hamburger, add cheese, wrap it, and then put it in a bag. And he believes that McDonald's (he has an excellent McDonald's source) is interested in these robots, which would be cheaper than paying employees. I'd like to invest $25,000 in this company. I can't find it on the stock market, so what can you tell me about it? Would it be a good buy? -- SP: Joliet, Ill.

Dear SP: Momentum Machines, founded in 2009, is a private company and its co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas has no intention of taking this San Francisco-based company public. At least not yet.

Vardakostas' machines are a burger-lovers dream. A robot won't spit in your food or add mustard when you ask for a burger with mayo. It can hold the lettuce and add pickles and tomato or hold the tomatoes and add pickles and lettuce. And a robot won't take an extra two minutes to make your burger because it's chatting-up another robot or checking Facebook. Robots are also a restaurant owner's dream. They're never late for work, they don't get sick, they don't steal inventory, never ask for raises, take vacations or smoke breaks and they follow instructions to a T. So yes, McDonald's is seriously exploring this technology. And in preparation for this eventuality, McDonald's began putting computers in many of its locations last year from which customers can order a meal and never speak to an employee. It's estimated that the Momentum Machine robot can replace three full-time line cooks and save McDonald's more than $110,000 a year in salaries, benefits and taxes. And robots will replace enough McDonald's employees that management will be able to pay its remaining employees the $15 an hour that they are demanding.

Impressive discoveries in artificial intelligence, computer vision, navigation, MEMS devices and semiconductor technologies continue to impel innovation in the ability, performance, autonomy and use of industrial and service robots. And advances in robotics will continue to accelerate innovation, disrupting and changing the operating paradigms of small businesses and big industries worldwide. Some say that in the next 10 years robots will replace 11 percent of our current workforce, and that's a lot of people. Think of economist's Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "gales of creative destruction" in which new industries destroy and uproot old industries, sweeping away the pre-existing order and in the process create a more profitable and efficient enterprises. Examples are railroads replacing stagecoaches, steam engine replacing sailing ships, computers replacing clerks, the internet replacing newspapers and Netflix replacing DVD rentals.

Momentum Machines has sufficient private financing, though they may eventually need additional development money. But that's several years into the future, and your $25,000 is just a raindrop in their ocean. But you can consider owning a little-known mid-cap/growth Exchange Traded Fund called ROBO Global Robotics & Automation (ROBO-$35.25). ROBO went public in October of 2013 at $25. The fund hopes its results correspond to the price and yield performance of the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index.

ROBO has 82 positions: 30 stocks trade in Asia, 35 stocks are listed in the U.S. and the remaining 17 trade on European exchanges. ROBO shares are up 11 points from its October 2013 IPO and trade just a nickel above its net asset value. Management owns strange names from faraway places like iRobot (IRBT), Amano Corporation (AMANF), Krones AG (KRNNF.DE), Raven Industries (RAVN), Ferro Technologies (FARO), Yushin Precision Equipment (6482) and Hiwin Technologies (2049.TW). If Momentum Machines were a public corporation, it would certainly be included in the ROBO portfolio. This ETF is not leveraged and has about $550 million in assets. It also has a surprisingly low beta of 1.16, trades at an all-time high and doesn't pay a dividend. However, I think ROBO's all-time will be a lot higher in the next few years. If you're comfortable with the modest risks, go for it.

Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775, or email him at mjberko@yahoo.com. To find out more about Malcolm Berko and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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