As I walked into Stern Pinball's modest facility in Melrose Park, Illinois shortly before Christmas last year, a loud buzzer went off. Dozens of workers streamed past, heading toward a catering cart stationed nearby. It's break time.
This is all that remains of an amusement empire in Chicago last century, an empire that included brands like Williams, Bally, Gottlieb, and Midway, among others. It's an empire that helped build the arcade era. Apart from Stern, everyone else has long since left the pinball business — or gone out of business altogether.
Stern's director of marketing, Jody Dankberg, takes me on a tour of the building, which is quite literally the only manufacturer of pinball machines left in the world (though New Jersey's Jersey Jack Pinball looks close to shipping its first machines). Stern traces its roots back to the 1940s, but it's been through many changes over the years: it was once owned by Japanese firm Data East, then Sega, and now by Gary Stern, the son of a Williams distributor and the company's namesake. I briefly meet Gary, an affable older gentleman, silver-haired, who has all the appearances and mannerisms of a man who's spent an entire lifetime making games.
I learn that each model of Stern's intricate, largely hand-built machines take as much as $1 million and a full year of design, development, and testing before a single unit is boxed up and sent out of the door. Read on to see how these engineering marvels take shape.
Above: In the back of the factory lies a walled-off room, the "Stern Arcade," where employees can play recent releases.
Stern's unassuming headquarters is tucked into a suburban Chicago industrial park. Once occupying a campus of three adjacent buildings producing several hundred machines per day, the company now occupies a single facility making around 60 machines per day.
Banners hanging from the rafters above the assembly line highlight some of Stern's past and current offerings.
Stations at the entrance to Stern's warehouse display some of the figurines that have been installed in machines over the years. Surprisingly, many are off-the-shelf: the trademark ogre in Stern's Shrek machine, for instance, came out of a McDonald's Happy Meal.
Special playfields called "whitewoods" are early prototypes of new machines that are given to testers and Stern's software engineers so they can be programmed. "You can think of the programmers as choreographers," Dankberg says, responsible for timing lights, bumpers, and special effects.
A lone Hulk is tested on a special rig for months on end, repeatedly lifting and lowering a bridge, to ensure durability.
Another test rig repeatedly fires a ball into a trap door. Avengers' designer had requested it, but mechanical engineers discovered that it wore out after several months of testing, so the feature was scrapped.
Handwritten notes indicate the testing progress of various components.
Stern's small repair facility looks like an electrical engineer's dream, stocked with an array of soldering irons, oscilloscopes, and a long shelf of replacement logic boards for discontinued models. In the foreground, a test rig for old Data East-era machines lets employees simulate every aspect of an old unit's circuitry.
This particular machine, a "Premium" version of Stern's AC/DC model, runs nearly $8,000 and features a bi-level playfield.
Workers playtest a home version of Avengers for which the software hasn't yet been finalized.
Stern generally makes just a few hundred of every model, attaching an individually-numbered plaque to each as it comes off the assembly line. "We made too many Transformers and kind of got stuck," Dankberg tells me.
Beneath the playfield, most Stern machines have a subwoofer and an internal AC outlet that technicians can use to connect a soldering iron or flashlight while making repairs.
A worker runs tests on a nearly-finished Avengers unit.
Test stations are equipped with generic logic boards that can be uploaded with firmware for any machine that needs to be tested prior to being shipped out.
A special mount at each testing station allows playfields to be rotated 360 degrees. A completed machine can weigh over 300 pounds, though Stern's entry-level home models weigh under 200.
Smoke rises from a soldering iron while workers attach components to the underside of a playfield.
The holiday spirit is in full effect on the assembly line.
Though some 80 percent of Stern's US sales are now to private collectors, Dankberg tells me that most request the coin-op machinery anyway — they want an authentic experience.
A shaker (pictured lower left) is used to vibrate the entire cabinet as a special effect in some titles.
From start to finish, the average machine takes about four days to build.
Components are installed on an Avengers playfield. If the smallest imperfection is found in a playfield, it's rejected and marked with an orange sticker. "Ten years ago, it didn't matter... the machines were going into arcades, they got scratched," Dankberg notes. Private owners, though, expect perfection.
George Gomez, the designer of Stern's Avengers machine, hand-signed the playfields for some of the high-end units.
Stern is in the process of modernizing its machines: new models feature much more tightly-integrated logic boards, ribbon cables in place of unwieldy wiring harnesses, and even Wi-Fi. Dankberg tells me the connectivity hasn't been enabled yet, but will eventually tap into online tournaments, over-the-air firmware upgrades, and remote diagnostics.
These panels will eventually become cabinets for some of Stern's entry-level models. "It's like Ikea furniture," Dankberg says.
A worker applies a decal to a ”Hulk” cabinet, one of two styles Stern is making for its Avengers playfield. Stern's graphics used to be screen printed, but it now uses decals exclusively — they're higher-resolution and easier to repair.
Completed AC/DC cabinets are ready to become pinball machines.
Stern switched to a "fishbone" configuration for its assembly line two years ago, putting component assemblers adjacent to workers performing final assembly. Dankberg tells me that the new layout shaves considerable time off the process by reducing the amount of walking workers must do between stations.
Workers painstakingly strip individual wires, connect fasteners, and attach zip-ties to wiring harnesses.
A worker strings a wiring harness according to a diagram provided by Stern's electrical engineers, one of five to six that will find their way into the machine.
A partially-assembled Hulk lies in a box, awaiting installation in Stern's Avengers machine.
Dankberg shows me a ramp destined for an Avengers machine.
Replacement parts and components for new machines line Stern's warehouse.
A ramp for Stern's Tron machine rests above its blueprint.
Even the smallest parts of Stern's machines require detailed blueprints with tolerances down to a thousandth of an inch.
Finished, packed pinball machines line a freight truck parked just feet away from where they're tested and assembled.