|PINBALL EXPO 2009|
Date: October 14th - 18th, 2009
Thursday at Pinball Expo began with the customary tour of the Stern Pinball factory.
The yellow school buses pulled up outside the Westin hotel just before the 9am departure time and expo attendees boarded for the 25 minute journey to Melrose Park.
There was a light rain falling as the visitors queued in the factory's parking lot.
Gary Stern came out to welcome everyone and explain how this year's tour would be different from those in recent years.
He explained how the market for games has changed (i.e. declined) and so Stern Pinball has had to change its production methods and schedule accordingly. That meant the next machines to be manufactured would be re-runs of titles such as Lord Of The Rings and CSI, and the next new model wouldn't hit the production line until the end of the year, in time for the European trade shows and buying season.
Thus, for the first time this author can remember, those people on the Pinball Expo tour of a pinball factory would not get to see any actual pinball machines being made. Instead, the factory was only making cable looms for the upcoming re-run of Lord Of The Rings.
Instead of the usual bustle of assembly manufacturing and machine construction, the factory's production lines were quiet and the visitors heavily outnumbered the staff.
The only area where any activity was taking place was right at the start of the tour - the cable department.
One thing that often surprises visitors is how much manual assembly takes place in the factory. There is virtually no automation, and the manufacture of the looms is a perfect example of this.
Even small cable connections are made by hand.
Once the cable runs are completed, they are cable-wrapped together and have their connectors added.
The completed cables looms are then hung up to await testing and installation once production of Lord Of The Rings begins.
There were plenty of CSI playfields in the racks, joined by small numbers of Pirates Of The Caribbean and a Simpsons redemption game.
In the absence of any full machine assembly, while the rest of our group were shown how the production process happens (look at last year's tour to see machines actually being made), we looked around the factory for other items of interest.
This skyscraper-shaped Spider-Man redemption game was designed by Dennis Nordman but the project was shelved before production, due to the high cost of the finished product.
With Stern able to re-make a variety of past machines, boxes of parts and fixtures for those (and a future title) were found all around the factory.
Samples of each game were set up for reference in the testing area.
To give the visitors an insight into the design process, Stern Mechanical Engineer John Rotharmel demonstrated their computer design system where mechanisms and assemblies can be created and animated in 3D on the screen.
The complete mechanism was tested in a custom fixture which repeatedly loaded and unloaded balls from the skull's eyes as you can see in this video clip.
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Behind John, another John was demonstrating how his design system worked. Designer John Borg had the AutoCAD system set up to show how playfields layouts are created and manipulated using the software's tools.
Behind John, several enlargements of drawings for assemblies and the CSI playfield were stuck to the wall for visitors to examine.
Each visitor received a gift pack from Stern consisting of a bunch of flyers - ours included Shrek, Monopoly, Austin Powers, The Sopranos, Playboy and Batman - as well as the three bobble-head toys from Wheel Of Fortune and a few small key ring plastics - ours were Spider-Man, Ripley's Believe It Or Not! and The Simpsons Pinball Party.
With that it was back to the buses for the trip back to the Westin hotel and the start of the seminars.
We'll have more from Pinball Expo 2009 shortly, including a look at the show hall and the games available for free play.