Date: 16th October, 2018
Location: 1448 Yorkshire Dr., Streamwood, IL 60107, USA

In October 2018, just a couple of days before the official unveiling of American Pinball’s second title, Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap, Pinball News paid a visit to the company’s factory in Streamwood, Illinois.

The American Pinball factory and offices in Streamwood
The American Pinball factory and offices in Streamwood

Understandably, everyone at American Pinball was keen to keep their new game under wraps until the presentation in Wheeling, however the company’s Sales & Marketing Strategist, Nirmal Vasani showed us around their facility and, as we shall see, quite a bit more.

Inside the American Pinball factory
Inside the American Pinball factory

The offices to the left of the picture above are where the game design and development takes place.  On the opposite side is a room where the programmers are working, along with the office of the head of American Pinball, Dhaval Vasani.  Between them, and on the right of the picture above, is the doorway to the factory.

We examined the production line to see how it operates and to compare it to how other pinball companies, past and present, build their games.  The Houdini game is their current game, although work was taking place to build up several Oktoberfest machines too.

As expected, we begin with unpopulated playfields.

Bare playfields at the start of the production line
Bare playfields at the start of the production line

American Pinball source their playfields from two different suppliers, and there are a few telltale differences between them, such as the type of pattern used to diffuse light in the inserts and the hardness of the wood.

First, T-nuts are hammered onto the playfield to hold the devices.  Then the flat rails and ball guides are mounted.  These playfields are then clamped into a rotisserie so that they can start their journey along the line, passing numerous workstations where more and more playfield parts and assemblies are added.

With all attention focused on making the Oktoberfest machines there were no Houdini playfields being worked upon while we were there, although there were plenty of partially-complete ones waiting on the line.

Adding the T-nuts
Adding the T-nuts
Where the flat rails are added
Where the flat rails and ball guides are added
The Houdini playfield with flat rails and ball guides added goes onto the line
The Houdini playfield with flat rails and ball guides added goes onto the line

Each workstation has several parts bins, while above them is either a sample playfield showing how it should look when everything has been added or a paper diagram showing part locations.  A yellow Post-It note identifies the workstation number.

One of the workstations near the start of the line
One of the workstations near the start of the line
A workstation where the playfield posts are installed
A workstation where the playfield posts are installed
A game-specific piece of protective foam ensure no damage occurs to the central playfield area while providing a place to rest hand tools
A game-specific piece of protective foam ensure no damage occurs to the central playfield area while providing a place to rest hand tools

Once many of the top-side parts have been added, the rotisserie is flipped over so under-playfield parts can be fitted.  Work will continue on the top later down the line.

Work on the top is complete, for now at least
Work on the top is complete, for now at least

The Houdini game uses the P3-ROC pinball control system from Multimorphic, so the RGB LED driver boards which are part of the same system and are mounted under the playfield come from them.

Mounting the controller boards under the playfield
Mounting the controller boards under the playfield
A rack of RGB LED controller boards from Multimorphic
A rack of RGB LED controller boards from Multimorphic
How the controller boards should be mounted
How the controller boards should be mounted at playfield workstation #6
Magnets and more are added
Magnets and more are added
Parts bins
Parts bins

The central area of the line is used to produce small playfield assemblies such as wired stand-up targets and short cables.

Wired parts for use on the line
Wired parts for use on the line
Stand-up targets
Stand-up targets
Wired ramps
Wired ramps

There is a ‘bascule’ bridge half-way along the line which raises to let people and parts through and then lowers to make a continuous track.

The bridge in the line
The bridge in the line

One thing you might have noticed here is just how clean everything is – even the floor.  This is part of the culture inherited from the parent company, Aimtron, which manufactures electronic circuit boards and devices in a closely-controlled environment.

The last few workstations complete the assembly of the bottom and then the top of the playfield.

Completing the bottom of the playfield
Completing the bottom of the playfield
The last few top components are added
The last few top components are added
The complete playfield is then ready to be installed inside the cabinet
The complete playfield is then ready to be installed inside the cabinet

The cabinets and backboxes come in from their manufacturer complete with decals attached.  American Pinball then fit the trim pieces, add the mounting hardware, and then install the various components such as the power supplies, the speakers and amplifier, the monitor and backbox lighting, the flipper buttons, tilt bob, start button, power switch and mains connector.

The playfields installed in the cabinets
The playfields installed in the cabinets

The complete games are then tested before being boxed and shipped.

Testing complete games
Testing complete games
Testing complete games
Testing complete games

We mentioned earlier how American Pinball’s (API) parent company was Aimtron, and how their extensive manufacturing experience and know-how in the gaming, amusement and defence sectors shaped the culture at API.

To find out exactly what this means, we hopped into the the car and drove for twenty minutes to the nearest Aimtron factory (they have six, both in the US and India) located in Palatine.

The Aimtron facility in Palatine
The Aimtron facility in Palatine

We were given a tour of the manufacturing floor, but before we reached it we ran into a familiar face.

Yes, there's a Houdini game here
Yes, there’s a Houdini game here too
The entry to the manufacturing area
The entry to the manufacturing area

Aimtron are contract manufacturers, meaning clients come to them wanting electronic boards built according to their own designs.  Most boards use surface-mount devices, although some through-hole components are used too for higher-power applications.

Aimtron also have a ‘line’ down which boards progress until complete, and there are some similarities with pinball here too.

The bare boards start on the line and are screen-printed; not with paint but with solder paste.  This paste sits on the component pads while the individual components are very precisely picked from large rolls of devices and positioned within 20 microns – less than half the width of the human hair.

The solder paste screen printing machine
The solder paste screen printing machine
Rolls of surface mount (SMT) devices - some are incredibly small
Rolls of surface mount (SMT) devices – some are incredibly small
Rolls feeding to the picking and placing machine
Rolls feeding to the picking and placing machine

This picking/placing machine is actually two machines in one, as there is an identical set-up on the opposite side, meaning it can be producing two completely separate products at the same time.

The board with the components placed on it, then passes into a ten-stage oven, where it is gradually heated to around 265°C until the solder paste melts and then slowly cooled to prevent cracking.

The ten-stage oven
The ten-stage oven
There are five of these SMT lines at this facility out of nine they have globally
There are five of these SMT lines at this facility out of nine they have globally
Typical finished boards
Typical finished boards

But Aimtron does more in the gaming and amusement business than just bringing a manufacturing culture to API.  For many years they have built boards for various gaming and coin-op companies, with LED boards for slot machine toppers a steady business.

Some of the slot machine toppers they make
Some of the slot machine toppers they make
LED boards for a circular topper
LED boards for a circular topper
An overview of the Aimtron manufacturing facility - they also have design offices in the same building
An overview of the Aimtron manufacturing facility – they also have design offices in the same building
It's strangely reassuring to know some manual soldering still takes place
It’s strangely reassuring to know some manual soldering still takes place
Through-hole devices are used here as well as SMT
Through-hole devices are used here as well as SMT

With our tour of Aimtron complete, we headed back towards API in Streamwood.  However, before that we stopped off at this party rental business just behind the Aimtron building.

Arlington Rental at 500 S, Hicks Road, Palatine
Arlington Rental at 500 S, Hicks Road, Palatine

Why were we visiting this company?

Simple.  The party rental business is moving out, and this building is going to be the new home for American Pinball.

API is used to working to tight deadlines.  Houdini was completely redesigned, prototypes build and it was presented to the public in under six months, and Oktoberfest is being pushed in a similar way to be ready for this week’s unveiling.  In that same spirit, Nirmal told us they plan to have API building games in this new facility before the end of the year.  This year. 2018.

That seemed highly ambitious to us, but the Vasani family have shown many times how they can beat all expectations and achieve the seemingly-impossible.  They intend to have two production lines for API’s regular games along with a third for bespoke or contracted manufacturing projects.

The planned home for a third production line making bespoke or contract manufactured games
The planned home for a third production line making bespoke or contract manufactured games

The new space is five times the floor area of their Streamwood facility, so there will be plenty of room for expansion and to host other manufacturing if required. The long-term aim is to move away from using the P3-ROC control system, and with such a ready electronic design and manufacturing facility just around the corner, that can only be a matter of time.

This visit to API’s forthcoming home concluded our look at American Pinball’s current and future operations.  Huge thanks to Nirmal Vasani for being our guide and letting us go behind the scenes.

Yes, we did get to see Oktoberfest: Pinball on Tap in the design offices.  We can’t bring you any pictures of that just yet, but the game will be revealed at the API seminar at Pinball Expo on Thursday and you will be able to see it all here at Pinball News.

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