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Improved production rates and a stronger flow of new orders helped business pick up during March at factories in the Buffalo Niagara region, a survey of local purchasing managers found.

The faster growth rate at the local factories -- the third increase in the last four months in the National Association of Purchasing Management -- Buffalo's index of business activity -- signaled continued improvement for the region's manufacturers.

With production, new orders and even hiring on the upswing according to the latest survey, the purchasers are seeing "a very favorable level of business activity," said William Ellis, the chairman of the group's business survey committee.

In March, the index bounced back to 61.1 from 55.1 in February, when it had slipped to its second-lowest level since November 2003.

Any reading above 50 indicates improvement. On that basis, the region's manufacturing sector has expanded for 21 straight months -- the longest streak of consecutive improvement in more than six years.

Boosting the index in March was a strong increase in production at local factories, which pushed the group's production index up to 67.4 last month from 56.5 in February. The number of managers reporting higher output at their firms jumped to 44 percent from 35 percent in February.

The flow of new orders also picked up, with the group's new order index rising to 63 from 52.2 in February as 44 percent of the managers surveyed reported an increase in the number of new orders at their firms, up from 26 percent in February.

The job outlook also brightened, with the group's employment index rising to 63 from 54.4 in February as 30 percent of their firms added workers last month, up from 22 percent in February.

Commodity prices continued their steady increase, while inventory levels also grew.