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35 years on, Honda’s North Carolina factory keeps expanding and innovating

Inside Honda’s expanding factory in Swepsonville, North Carolina

Honda Power Equipment, the Japanese car maker's division that makes lawn mowers, generators and other items, is expanding its facility in North Carolina with a $50 million investment. The company has had a presence in Alamance County for 35 years.
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Honda Power Equipment, the Japanese car maker's division that makes lawn mowers, generators and other items, is expanding its facility in North Carolina with a $50 million investment. The company has had a presence in Alamance County for 35 years.

If you have bought a new lawn mower in recent years, there’s a chance that it — or at least part of it — was built in North Carolina.

Honda, one of the largest manufacturers of lawn mowers and engines, has been building them in Swepsonville, a small community in Alamance County, for 35 years.

And the Japanese car maker’s ties to the area appear to be on solid footing.

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The entrance to the Honda Power Equipment plant in Swepsonville, N.C., on Aug. 6, 2019. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

On Tuesday, Honda announced that it will invest $46 million to expand its power equipment factory here — adding about 135,000 square feet of space and a new production line for one of the company’s general purpose engines that can be found in everything from lawn mowers to snow plows.

The Japanese company has invested $350 million in the facility, located about 20 miles northwest of Chapel Hill, since 1984, when this location became the company’s third American factory.

Honda began manufacturing in the U.S. in 1979, starting with motorcycles and then cars a few years later from its North American home base of Ohio.

The new investment, which comes on top of a $10.5 million expansion last year, will help the company build out its newest line of engines and a lawn mower, which were both designed in Alamance County.

In addition to the factory, Honda houses one of its research and development labs in Swepsonville, designing everything from new lawn mower engines and generators to water pumps and snow plows.

Since 1993, the R&D team in Swepsonville, which is made up of about 40 people, has filed around 90 patents related to power equipment built at the factory next door.

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A wall of patents awarded to members of the Honda Power Equipment research and development team in Swepsonville, N.C. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

Its latest creation, the HRN lawn mower, has the enviable task of replacing a lawn mower that sold around 300,000 units per year, Will Walton, vice president of Honda Power Equipment, told a large crowd of employees Tuesday.

For comparison, Honda sells about 300,000 Civics, its most popular car, per year, Walton said. It also produces two million engines a year and half a million Honda products. (Some of the engines are used by other manufacturers.)

That success has allowed it to become a major employer in the region.

On Tuesday, reporters were shown a hot, loud and busy factory floor. The air was filled with the noise of hissing hot air and occasional alarm bells.

Hundreds of employees, wearing white coveralls, worked seamlessly with advanced manufacturing robotics, moving engines and lawn mowers down lines of conveyor belts, adding parts or checking quality.

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Around 1,100 people work at the Honda Power Equipment factory in Swepsonville, N.C., where the company makes lawmowers, generators, snow plows and other items. Zachery Eanes zeanes@newsobserver.com

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican who represents the area, said Tuesday that if all three shifts at the Honda plant were there at once it would double the population of the town.

The Honda factory has 1,100 employees, 750 of them full time. While the company does not have immediate plans to boost headcount, it might have to in the future, depending upon the success of the new lawn mower.

“The workforce here is very, very strong,” said Shane McCoy, a senior vice president at Honda. “We don’t have any issue filling any open positions. Right now, I would guess that we have about eight open positions. It is not a big number at all.”

“What we are really focused on is we have a new engine and a new lawn mower that we have to introduce,” he added. “We have to get that right ... but if that lawn mower takes off and we need to increase volume, new jobs will follow.”

McCoy said it is tough to replace a lawn mower model that has been such a success. The R&D team here left “no stone unturned” when attempting to improve on it.

“It has 9% more horsepower, 18% more torque,” McCoy said. “Why is that important? If you have thick, wet grass and you still want it to look good when you cut it, it will because you have more power.”

This is the second expansion for Honda in North Carolina in recent weeks. In May, Honda’s aircraft subsidiary said it would build a $15.5 million expansion of its jet engine facility in Greensboro, The News & Record reported.

Honda Aircraft employs around 1,500 people at its headquarters at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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