It would be a tall order to find a mining and metals company that has experienced a tougher two years than Alcoa (NYSE: AA). From near $35 a share, with all manner of economic factors pushing and tugging at it, including a 60% drop in aluminum prices, the company's shares dropped to about $5, before bouncing to their current $11.

The question then becomes whether the venerable Pittsburgh company has become a buy. Certainly, if activity is a measuring stick, the response could be positive. Today, for instance, Alcoa announced the acquisition of privately held Traco, which manufactures premier windows and doors for sale globally. Once the acquisition is completed, Traco will become part of Alcoa's Building and Construction Systems business.

At the same time, the company is forking over $1.5 billion for the construction of a low-cost bauxite mine in an ultraremote area of the Amazon jungle. Bauxite is critical to aluminum manufacturing. Alcoa aims to move into the same league with lower-cost competitors like Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP) and UC Rusal, along with smaller manufacturers around the globe.

Alcoa has furloughed 60,000 employees on its way to shaving $3 billion in operating costs. Beyond that, the company is spending $2.2 billion to become a partner with Saudi Arabian interests in a new aluminum mining project that will become the kingdom's largest. To spread the wealth across the globe, Alcoa has spent about $750 million in Russia during the past few years, modernizing plants to better serve the country's food, beverage, and aerospace industries.

But perhaps the biggest long-term benefit to the company will be China's recent decision to permit its yuan to rise freely against the dollar. That step could increase demand in China, while simultaneously benefiting companies such as Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT) and Joy Global (Nasdaq: JOYG), which are exporters into the Asian country.

Now, with earnings season around the corner, and with aluminum manufacturers such as Alcoa and smaller rival Century Aluminum (Nasdaq: CENX) expected to handily top their year-ago results, I'd urge Fools to be especially attentive to Alcoa, which always lines up first in the reporting parade.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your comments or questions. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy