Portland's Precision Castparts makes advanced metal components for aircraft engines and industrial gas turbines for customers around the world.

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American manufacturing has been down the past 20 years, but it’s far from out. Exhibit A is Portland’s Precision Castparts, which does the unsexy but profitable work of making advanced metal components, especially for aircraft engines and industrial gas turbines. It sells its products worldwide.

The company makes its 18th appearance in the Best of the Northwest; the previous year it ranked No. 1. For the decade from 2000 to 2010, Precision outperformed every other Northwest public company in average annual return to shareholders.

In the latest fiscal year, it was one of the top profit generators on the list, even though profits fell nearly 12 percent compared with the previous year. Morningstar analyst Neal Dihora characterized the most recent period as a “difficult year” for Precision. The big culprit has been a slowdown in demand for the seamless pipe used in the energy sector. The company’s work force declined by 2,500 between fiscal year 2009 and 2010.

On the other hand, Precision is benefiting from the upswing in the aerospace business. Aerospace accounts for more than half the company’s sales, with customers including Airbus as well as Boeing. Precision should see a boost once the 787 Dreamliner moves into mass production, with each airplane containing about $5.6 million in Precision-made components. Dreamliner delays have hurt Precision.

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Chief Executive Mark Donegan, in a conference call with securities analysts last month, pointed to improving orders in the fiscal fourth quarter across most of Precision’s business lines. One challenge remains: getting definitive schedules from Precision’s customers, so the company can ensure it has the workers and capacity to fulfill orders. He also said rebuilding from the earthquake in Japan may increase demand for Precision’s industrial gas-turbine components.

The company is cash-rich and recently acquired the assets of PB Fasteners, a California company that makes bolt technology to mitigate lightning strikes on the 787, for an undisclosed price.

Donegan might not be done with the shopping list. “We tend to work on things for a long time, and we tend to be very patient,” he told analysts. “I think that there are opportunities.” But he emphasized, “Discipline, patience has worked very well for us in the long haul. So staying to that is going to be key.”

Shareholders, a bunch not known for patience, have been rewarded despite Precision’s uneven performance in the first three quarters of the fiscal year. Share prices have risen some 45 percent over the past 12 months.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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