Every day consumers wake up wanting a smartphone or handheld device that’s smaller, faster and cheaper.

Cascade Microtech is helping companies make these devices. The Beaverton, Ore., company’s performance over the last two years was strong enough to land at No. 4 in The Seattle Times’ 22nd annual ranking of public companies based in the Northwest.

Started in 1984, Cascade Microtech specializes in the design, development and manufacturing of machines that electronically measure and test semiconductor devices, including integrated circuits, chips and circuit boards. These circuits are measured precisely and installed in electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, e-books and tablets. The smaller the wires, the faster a device.

“We have to be equal if not a step ahead of our customers to help them understand their products better,” said Michael D. Burger, CEO of Cascade Microtech since July 2010. “It’s a big job but we’ve been relatively successful.”

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The company boasts a global reach, with 1,700 customers worldwide, including Intel, IBM, Qualcomm, Samsung and Toshiba. Cascade has 383 employees worldwide with roughly 75 percent of its revenue in the last three years coming from customers outside of North America, the bulk being from Asia Pacific. It also has a manufacturing facility in Dresden, Germany.

While the tech industry’s drive to constantly create has helped Cascade push out new machines of its own, the company has had some financial woes. In 2004 and 2005, the company’s stock price was trading at highs between $11 and $15 per share. The global economic downturn hit its stock beginning in 2007. The company wrote off a $27.7 million investment in the fourth quarter of 2008. Then the semiconductor industry experienced one of its worst downturns in history in 2009.

“In 2009 consumers stopped buying electronics in the same way, and that whole lack of demand just ran through the industry,” said Jeff Killian, chief financial officer for Cascade.

Its stock hit bottom at $1.95 in December 2008 and has climbed since 2010 to more than $6 a share. That same year Cascade acquired the test systems unit of SUSS MicroTec AG., a German company also specializing in measuring semiconductor chips, for $10 million. In 2012, after almost three years of no profit, the company introduced new products and posted a profit of $6.1 million. At the end of April, the company announced revenue was going to be in the range of $27 million to $30 million in the current quarter.

Stock analyst Bobby Burleson, managing director for Canaccord Genuity in San Francisco, said while the company has the advantage of servicing a niche market and is growing in revenue, foreign-exchange rates have been haywire over the years and affected Cascade Microtech’s stock prices.

“If you’re getting paid from the Japanese in yen, you’re getting paid less and that’s what hurt them in the last quarter,” Burleson said. “If you’re on that list of guys that get hurt from a weak yen you stay in the penalty box for a while.”

While doing well now, the semiconductor industry faces challenges, said Malgorzata Chrzanowska-Jeske, chairwoman and professor in electrical and computer engineering at Portland State University. She said the chip industry is pushing the physical limits of electronic devices. She said as devices get smaller, they require more power and subsequently heat up quickly. Industry leaders are researching other materials it can use to make transistors besides silicon, such as carbon-nanotube and graphene. The challenge is finding materials that will reduce the amount of power needed to make devices work.

“At the same time those individual transistors are getting smaller, at some point these devices can’t be smaller because of these physical limits,” Chrzanowska-Jeske said.

Burger said the company is working on making machines that can accommodate the increasing size of wafers. Circular wafers can hold thousands of microscopic crisscrossing wires and can be smaller than one one-hundredth of the width of a hair strand. Industry standards for wafer size have grown over time from 150 mm to 200 mm to 300 mm and soon will be 450 mm, the size of the average medium pizza.

“The challenge for us is to continue to grow,” he said. “There’s a line between speed of execution and making sure it’s correct. There’s always a rush to be there first.”

Marissa Evans 206-464-3701 or marissaevans@seattletimes.com