3M (NYSE:MMM) reported third-quarter results yesterday, and the diversified manufacturer's mixed showing seems to reflect the continued confusing state of the economy.

The St. Paul, Minn.-based company posted revenue of nearly $5 billion for the quarter, a 7.6% increase from the $4.6 billion it brought in for last year's third quarter. Earnings, meanwhile, came in at $0.97 per share versus $0.83 in the third quarter of 2003, a 17% jump. Nevertheless, 3M's per-share earnings fell short of analysts' expectations.

The firm, which produces everything from Scotch tape to stethoscopes, showed particular strength in its industrial segment with a 10.5% sales increase. At the same time, the optical and display business's 6.6% improvement fell short of hopes, the electro and communications unit showed anemic 1.5% growth, and the health-care area's sales declined 0.8%.

3M noted that it is "cautious" on the global economy as sales surged in Asia, increased moderately in the U.S., and declined in Europe. What's more, like a lot of manufacturers, the firm is feeling price pressure from raw material costs. The company sounded an optimistic note on future earnings, but with all the moving variables, it's hard to get a handle on the long-term outlook.

One area that seems to be lagging a bit is health care, and in particular, 3M's pharmaceuticals business. In March, the firm's Aldara cream gained approval from the Food and Drug Administration for use in treating actinic keratosis, a precursor to skin cancer, and in July, it was also approved for the treatment of basal cell carcinoma, a common form of non-melanoma skin cancer. The company has seen "no meaningful impact yet" from the new approvals. Nevertheless, as an alternative to surgery, Aldara's long-term sales potential seems pretty darn good.

For now, the outlook might seem hazy for 3M, but with a significant driver in health care and improvement in the industrial area, patience may be the watchword of the day.

Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer in Chicago. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.