News : How the last major pinball company handcrafts its machines : P0lygon.com
Polygon.com has written an article about Stern pinball and its domination in the pinball industry.
Stern Pinball turns 30 this year, and the last of the major pinball creators in the world decided to celebrate with a blowout party this month.
The pinball creator is hosting an anniversary party at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire, Illinois, this Friday. The event will include appearances by Barenaked Ladies frontman and pinball player Ed Robertson; Chicago musician Aly Jaydos; sword swallower Sally Marvel; Magic Randy; Mindy the Monkey; Ghostbusters‘ Ernie Hudson; and Batman’s Adam West.
I had a chance to swing by the relatively new offices of Stern, a dozen miles or so away from Chicago O’Hare airport, to chat with them about the process of making machines and to get a tour.
All of Stern’s machines are designed and prototyped in-house. Once approved, the creations are broken down and the designs for each sent out for manufacturing. With that single exception, everything else is done inside this single office and assembly plant.
The office takes up a small part of Stern’s new location, through the back, where the carpet turns to concrete, the cubicles are replaced by rows of assembly stations, nests of wire, tables, toys and lots of workers.
I arrive an hour early, thanks to the time difference and my inability to use Google Calendars. Someone walks me back to the assembly plant. The massive, open room echoes with the thumps of pinball kickers, flippers and the occasional jangle of a pinball working its way through a cluster of bumpers.
Along one wall is Stern’s employee “arcade.” It includes a wide selection of nearly every machine Stern has ever manufactured, all set to free play. Among the titles buzzing and bumping away is Lazer Lord — Stern’s first — a game designed not around the space wars and science fiction, but laser tag.
About 20 minutes and an embarrassing number of low scores later, Jody Dankberg, Stern’s director of marketing and licensing, comes by to walk me through the assembly process.
Dankberg and I marvel at the process of turning reels of fine wires into the wiring harnesses that bring pinball machines to life.
“We can’t really automate this stuff,” he said. “It has to be done by people.
“The amount of detail, the amount of parts, the amount of logistics. To be able to have all of the inventory to do this and have the people to do this, it gets a little out of control.”
We walk by one room that I’m not allowed in. It’s the automated testing area. While the machines are all tested by hand, they also test machines using robots.
(I can’t help but imagine, when I’m told this, a T-1000 standing shoulder-to-shoulder with C-3PO grinding against the machine to pop a ball out of the center lane and into a flipper. Unfortunately, I could neither prove nor disprove this vision.)
Dankberg and the folks I run into during my tour all seem exceedingly proud of their work and the machines Stern puts out each year.
“Each machine takes about 30 hours, or about four working days, by about 200 people to assemble,” Dankberg said. “Now designing and building a machine, that’s about a year and a million dollars.”
Thanks to Polygon.com and Brian Crecente for the article and pictures