Factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region expanded in July at its highest pace since March 2011 as employment and shipments picked up, even as new orders cooled, a survey showed on Thursday.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said its business activity index rose to 19.8 from 12.5 in June, far exceeding economists' expectations for a reading of 7.8.

Any reading above zero indicates expansion in the region's manufacturing. The survey covers factories in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.

The new orders index fell to 10.2 from 16.6, while employment improved to 7.7 from minus 5.4.