The machine tool industry, after seeing increased activity in January, reported yesterday that shipments and orders fell in February, another indicator of the continued recession and the unwillingness of companies to invest in new machinery.

The National Machine Tool Builder's Association said orders for domestic machine tools fell sharply in February to $164 million, a 20 percent decline from January.

In addition, machine tool shipments fell, but less severely. Shipments were at $360 million, down 6 percent from January levels, according to the McLean-based association.

"After the sizable rise in machine tool orders in January, the report of February's activity is particularly disappointing, said James A. Gray, association president.

"This yo-yo effect on the market makes any constructive business planning on the part of the machine tool industry very difficult," he said. "Although February's downward movement does not wipe out all of January's gains to bring us back to December's activity level, that is little consolation. It clearly does not continue the trend toward economic recovery that our nation needs."

The sharpest declines were in metal-cutting machine tool orders, which fell by 21 percent to $123 million. Metal-forming machine tool orders were off by 18 percent, dropping to $41 million in February.

The pattern for shipments, however, was just the opposite: metal-forming tools were down 13 percent to $66 million while metal-cutting machine tool orders were down by 5 percent to $293 million.

Particularly damaging to the industry was the depressed foreign market. Orders by foreign buyers were down 63 percent and shipments were down 42 percent.

When the order and shipment figures for the first two months of the year are compared with the same period last year, total orders are down 35 percent, from $571 million to $369 million this year, and shipments are down 8.4 percent, from $811 million to $743 million.

At the end of February, the association said the machine tool industry's total backlog was $2.93 billion which, at February's shipping rate, is about an eight-month backlog.