By John S. McClenahen In another sign that the U.S. economy is in the early stages of recovery, new orders for U.S. manufactured goods in March increased 1.8% to $370.5 billion, following a 0.1% decline in February. Closely watched orders for durable goods, in fact, were stronger than originally reported, up 3.5% to $206.3 billion, their largest increase since June 2000, reports the U.S. Commerce Dept.'s Bureau of the Census. Although clearly pleased by the overall increase in new orders, Gordon Richards, economist at the National Assn. of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, points out that the orders increase was uneven across manufacturing. Led by shipbuilding and tanks, orders for transportation equipment rose an impressive 24.8% to $52.5 billion. However, orders for electronic and other electrical equipment fell 5.5% to $37.3 billion. Orders for industrial machinery and equipment decreased 2.8% to $41 billion. New orders for primary metals fell 2% to $13.6 billion, continuing a six-month trend. "The overall picture is thus ambiguous, with patches of strength and weakness," says Richards. The NAM economist believes U.S. manufacturers are still waiting for unambiguous evidence of increasing demand before they ramp up production. "We may still see a couple of weak months in April and May," says Richards. "But we should see a return to stronger growth sometime this summer."