Back in the old days, miners would carry canaries into the mines with them as a means of protecting themselves from dangerous gases and bad air. Because birds like canaries are generally more sensitive to fumes than humans are, a dead bird was a good early warning that the miners should get out of that area.

As a company that depends largely upon the manufacturing sector for its business, LincolnElectric (NASDAQ:LECO) is something of a modern-day canary for worldwide manufacturing activity. Welding and cutting is an integral part of many manufacturing activities, and Lincoln Electric is one of the larger pure plays in the game.

Sales rose 18% in the first quarter as the company experienced double-digit price growth and mid-single-digit volume growth. While North American sales growth was a bit weaker at 13%, overseas sales grew at a nice 24% clip.

As input prices have mostly stabilized, Lincoln Electric posted a gross margin that was essentially flat vs. the prior year. Operating margin, though, improved slightly, and the company reported that net income grew 22% despite a modest charge.

Management reported that overall industrial activity basically corroborated the widely reported government statistics and was "okay" for the first quarter. Despite well-known weakness in the auto sector, there was considerable strength in heavy truck, agricultural, and mining/energy manufacturing.

Overall, the company experienced good growth around the world. Sales in Europe were up about 20% and were particularly strong in the UK, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Latin America and Asia were also thriving, and the company continues to build its business in China.

While its product revenue is inextricably linked to the economic cycle, Lincoln Electric has a pretty good history of posting double-digit returns on equity and steady profit margins.

With Lincoln Electric trading at about 15 times trailing earnings, I find it hard to say that the stock is a bargain, given historical earnings growth rates and the cyclicality of the business. What's more, although debt isn't too high relative to equity, it does outstrip cash on hand. Nevertheless, the company pays a good dividend and is not expensive relative to the rest of its sector.

If global manufacturing activity picks up, this canary should sing. But if the global economy hits the skids, investors will probably want to say bye-bye, birdie to this stock.

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).