There are new faces on the factory floor at plants like PEP Brainin in the Attleboro Industrial Park, proof, company executives say, that there is a recovery underway for long-suffering manufacturing.

"2010 exhibited a dramatic turnaround across the board that only grew stronger as the year went on," said Bill Cote, vice president for marketing at Precision Engineered Products, which owns Brainin, a maker of metal parts.

"The growth rate was phenomenal, although we have now reached a stasis point," Cote said. "We did hire accordingly."

Over the last several decades, few segments of the American economy have contracted like manufacturing and the sector was not spared in the recession.

But although overall economic growth since the crash of 2008 has been slow or halting, for those manufacturers in a position to take advantage of it, there are signs of guarded optimism.

"Business has taken a significant upturn," said Keri Servais, vice president for human resources at Engineered Materials Solutions on Perry Avenue in Attleboro.

"Other companies bled out there inventories and now they are stocking up in anticipation," Servais said. "We have not seen that it is going to slow down based on the orders."

Nationally, the Manufacturing Institute for Supply Management reported that economic activity in the manufacturing sector grew in February for the 19th consecutive month and reached its highest level since May 2004. The report was on the strength of exports and new orders.

The ISM report, based on a survey of executives, also said 35 percent of manufacturers are adding employees versus 9 percent decreasing the workforce. Factoring the 56 percent keeping employment level, that's the best mark of the past four months and one that has only been equaled three times in last decade.

Of course, the economy has looked ready to take off before in the last two years only to stagnate.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that factory orders for durable goods, items such as cars and refrigerators, declined .9 percent in February, bucking analysts' predications of a second consecutive strong monthly increase.

In Massachusetts, the performance of manufacturers has varied dramatically from market to market.

According to the state labor department's monthly report, Massachusetts lost 1,100 manufacturing jobs in February despite a increase of 14,500 jobs overall during the month.

"It's been very mixed in manufacturing," said Andre Mayer, vice president for research at Associated Industries of Massachusetts. "We have had some sectors doing well and others not doing well. This is a very uneven recovery."

Those companies seeing a boost in their fortunes over the past several months have tended to produce capital equipment or operate in the relatively strong export market, Mayer said. Manufacturers relying on domestic consumer activity or linked in any way to the moribund housing market, he said, are generally not doing as well.

"Manufacturing tends not to create jobs very quickly," Mayer said. "So while manufacturing did well in the early recovery, it did not create that many jobs."

One market that appears to have come through the recession relatively unscathed is medical devices, where local producers have accounted for a large chunk of the region's new jobs.

At Smith & Nephew Endoscopy in Mansfield's Cabot Business Park, spokesman Joe Metzger said the company shifted some of its focus from the capital equipment market to disposables during the recession, but never stopped growing.

In the first quarter of 2011, Smith & Nephew has hired six new workers, four in manufacturing and two in research and development. The company now has eight openings it hopes to fill soon, Metzger said.

In the North Attleboro Industrial Park, Needletech Products, which manufactures specialty needles for large medical device makers, saw their customers slow or delay the development of new products in 2009.

But in the last few months, Needletech President President Joseph Plante said he has seen customers start to role out new products again that are expected to spur orders for his company throughout the next year.

"Our gauge is new products hitting the market and we are starting to see things pick up in ways they weren't last year," Plante said. "We are cautiously optimistic."

Plante declined to provide any hiring figures, but, like many in the manufacturing sector, said Needletech uses a lot of temporary workers to meet production needs through the peaks and valleys of the order cycle.

Not all North Attleboro companies have seen the fruits of the recovery.

Just down the street from Needletech at Bell's Powder Coating, owner Paul Belham said he is still being hurt by Chinese competitors, who can undercut him on price by up to 40 percent.

"I don't see a sense of business picking up so far this year," Belham said. "We haven't seen a huge impact. No one is seeing any major orders."

Bell's Powder Coating applies an electrostatic coating to display cases and cabinets and could fall into the category of businesses hurt by sluggish domestic consumer spending.

The impacts of Asian manufacturers on domestic markets are nothing new, but seem to have only increased since the recession.

According to Mayer, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts analyst, the strength of production overseas has made it even more important for manufacturers to think globally.

"One big picture thing we are seeing is that East Asian economies have suffered much less in the global downturn and have come back much more strongly," Mayer said. "Exports got hammered in 2009 and then we had a rebound in 2010. Sales to China are way up while sales to Europe are not."

On top of the larger economic trends shaping local markets and businesses, unpredictable events like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can always alter the best business plans.

Mayer said the problems in Japan would likely present opportunities for some Massachusetts companies while wreaking havoc with the supply chains of others.

In Attleboro, Sensata Technologies has been a leading example of a manufacturer hit hard by the recession - shedding 100 jobs in 2009 - that has since rebounded.

Sensata, one of the city's top five employers, now has 40 positions open in Attleboro after already having filled 20 jobs in the last few months, according to spokeswoman Linda Megathlin. The company employs around 750 people here.

For many of the engineering positions that Sensata has been looking to fill, Megathlin said competition for qualified talent has become more intense in 2011 than it was a year ago.

Down the street at Engineered Materials Solutions, another company that was once part of Texas Instruments, hiring has also been steady.

Servais, the human resources vice president, said the company has hired over 30 workers in manufacturing in the past six months and attributed the growth to the general healing of the economy.

Engineered Materials Solutions makes clad metal used in everything from transportation to housing and, like many modern manufacturers, is currently expanding its Asian operations.

Servais said that the growth of the company's overseas operations has actually created more job growth locally, because the metal produced here is finished in China.

Back at PEP Brainin, Cote said employment is back to its pre-recession levels and the proof that the company is back on track are the workers themselves.

"Our workers see more faces in the building each day, so they know that the company has weathered the storm," Cote said.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at 508-236-0336 or panderson@thesunchronicle.com.

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