Date: 18th October 2022
Location: 1850 Greenleaf Ave. Elk Grove Village, IL 60007, USA

The 2022 Pinball Expo marked several firsts, one of which was the first ever Jersey Jack Pinball factory tour. Visitors to the Schaumburg Convention Center on the morning of Thursday 20th October could sign up to join one of the tour groups and be given a free coach ride followed by a guided tour around the Jersey Jack Pinball factory in Elk Grove Village.

Unfortunately, Pinball News was busy on Thursday working away in the Convention Center from 7am to set up the audio and video equipment for the three full days of seminars, and so we weren’t able to be part of that tour.

Thankfully though, the Jersey Jack Pinball team arranged for us to have a private tour two days earlier, with game designer Eric Meunier as our guide.

So, we are pleased to bring you this detailed report from the Jersey Jack Pinball factory.

The Jersey Jack Pinball factory in Elk Grove Village
The Jersey Jack Pinball factory in Elk Grove Village
(picture: Jonathan Joosten)

In the reception area are four JJP titles showcasing the very first game they made – The Wizard of Oz – and the three most recent – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Guns ‘N Roses and Toy Story 4.

The four JJP games in the reception area
The four JJP games in the reception area

While all were either Limited Edition or Special Edition models, the Guns ‘N Roses was even rarer than that.

A true one-off
A true one-off

The reception area is also home to some of the awards won by the company.

The awards shelf
The awards shelf

The first sight we see as we move into the production area is a familiar one from years of taking the Stern Pinball tour.

NOW we know we're in a pinball factory
NOW we know we’re in a pinball factory

Walking past the lunch heating/eating area we see two playfield production lines. At the time of our visit only one was in use. The second had been shut down in preparation for the Pinball Expo tour which would take place in two days’ time. Red tape was being laid on the floor to indicate the tour route, while exhibits of partially completed playfields were positioned along the tour so guests could see how the components are gradually added.

The active playfield production line
The active playfield production line
The shut-down playfield line
The shut-down playfield line

As we have seen at other companies, there are essentially three separate sections of a pinball machine – the playfield, the cabinet and the backbox.

The playfield is by far the more complicated to manufacture. Not only does it have the most individual components, but many of those components are bespoke to each title. Then there are the different versions of that title, each of which may have further variations.

While the cabinet and backbox feature title and version-specific artwork and metalwork, these are relatively easy to vary. The basic designs of the cabinet and backbox enclosures don’t change.

As a result, far more resources and staff are devoted to building up the playfield, which arrives at the factory in a box from JJP’s playfield manufacturer, Mirco Playfields in Germany.

Two titles were in production around the time of our visit – Toy Story 4 and Guns ‘N Roses, although only Toy Story 4 was actually on the line while we were in the factory.

A box of Gus 'N Roses playfields
A box of Gus ‘N Roses playfields

All playfields are hand-inspected to make sure they haven’t picked up any damage during shipping.

Playfield inspection
Playfield inspection

Any which are found to be less than perfect and can’t be easily touched-up are marked as seconds and sold as decorative items for wall hanging or used for give-aways.

Toy Story 4 playfields
Toy Story 4 playfields
These Toy Story 4 playfields didn't make the grade
These Toy Story 4 playfields didn’t make the grade

Once they pass inspection, playfields go into racks until they are ready to start their journey down the production line.

Racks of playfields ready to hit the line
Racks of playfields ready to hit the line

The next stage for a playfield is to have a number of holes drilled so that posts, flatrails (metal ball guides) and T-nuts can be added. These holes also ensure that later mechanisms are mounted in exactly the correct place.

To achieve that, playfields are mounted in a rotisserie which allows the playfield to be easily flipped between the top and the underside, and also makes it easier for them to travel over the production line’s rollers.

Two Toy Story 4 playfields in rotisseries
Two Toy Story 4 playfields in rotisseries
As each playfield starts on the line its progress is tracked
As each playfield starts on the line its progress is tracked
Hammering in T-nuts to mount posts and assemblies on a Toy Story 4 playfield
Hammering in T-nuts to mount posts and assemblies on a Toy Story 4 playfield

Once the holes are drilled, those posts and flatrails are added to the otherwise-unpopulated playfield.

Where the ball posts and flatrails go
Where the ball posts and flatrails go
Adding a right orbit flatrail
Adding a right orbit flatrail
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and are also multi-lingual
Pictures are worth a thousand words, and are also multi-lingual
More flatrails and guides on racks next to the line
More flatrails and guides on racks next to the line

Each station has a set of electric screwdrivers or nut drivers. These are usually suspended above the line on a retracting cord, so they can be pulled down to the playfield when needed.

The electric drivers at a workstation
The electric drivers at a workstation
Standup and rollover switches are installed
Standup and rollover switches are installed
Once the switches are added, the worksheet is signed and the playfield moves on to the next station
Once the switches are added, the worksheet is signed and the playfield moves on to the next station
Some stations require soldering to be performed, so these have smoke extraction systems installed
Some stations require soldering to be performed, so these have smoke extraction systems installed
A pile of pre-made cable looms
A pile of pre-made cable looms
More cable looms waiting to be installed
More cable looms waiting to be installed

Adding all the hundreds of parts to a playfield requires great stock control. The stock room at Jersey Jack Pinball is extensive and tightly managed.

The stock room
The stock room
Additional stock is stored on racks outside the stock room
Additional stock is stored on racks outside the stock room
More common generic parts are more-easily accessed when needed
More common generic parts are more-easily accessed when needed

Besides the regular posts and switches, game-specific mechanisms also need to be installed.

Because they require time-consuming assembly and testing, these sub-assemblies are made at separate workstations behind the production line workers, and then put into racks for the line workers to access.

The sub-assembly construction area
The sub-assembly construction area
A rack of scoops waiting to have their solenoids and other hardware added
A rack of scoops waiting to have their solenoids and other hardware added

Each sub-assembly requires its own parts list, schematic diagram, assembly tools, assembly instructions and testing equipment. Since these have to be made from scratch for every new sub-assembly, if a sub-assembly can be reused in future games it saves a considerable amount of time and resources.

The spinning disc workstation
The spinning disc workstation
The spinning disc starts with a metal frame and a spinning axle
The spinning disc starts with a metal frame and a spinning axle
Spinning disc assembly instructions
Spinning disc assembly instructions
A dozen completed spinning disc sub-assemblies
A dozen completed spinning disc sub-assemblies ready to test
Even simple devices such as an up-post need to be pre-assembled
Even simple devices such as an up-post need to be pre-assembled and tested
The kickback building and testing workstation
The kickback building and testing workstation

The Duke Caboom jump ramp is a complex mechanism requiring accurate and robust action, while also lying level with the playfield when not activated.

The Duke Caboom jump ramp sub-assembly
The Duke Caboom jump ramp sub-assembly
The ramp sub-assembly includes four adjuster posts to ensure the ramp lies flush with the playfield
The jump ramp sub-assembly includes four adjuster posts to ensure the ramp lies flush with the playfield
A partially complete playfield with the Duke Caboom ramp installed but no Gabby Gabby mechanism
A partially complete playfield with the Duke Caboom ramp installed but no Gabby Gabby mechanism
Gabby Gabby pop-up bash toys
Gabby Gabby pop-up bash toys
Drop target sub-assemblies
Drop target sub-assemblies
Playfields continue down the line, with more parts added at each station
Playfields continue down the line, with more parts added at each station
More and more parts are added at each station
Adding more to the underside of the playfield
Bins of sub-assemblies ready for the line workers to access
Bins of sub-assemblies ready for the line workers to access
Line workers take the required parts from the bins behind them
Line workers take the required parts from the bins behind them

While some sub-assemblies can be stacked in storage bins, others are more delicate and require special handling.

Powder-coated wireforms are protected against scratches by hanging in racks
Powder-coated wireforms are protected against scratches by hanging in racks
Carnival Game 10" LCD playfield displays
Carnival Game 10″ LCD playfield displays for the Collector’s Edition of Toy Story 4
A rack of back panels
A rack of back panels
The Carnival Game monitor hooks over the back panel at the rear and also bolts into the playfield at the front
The Carnival Game monitor hooks over the back panel at the rear and also bolts into the playfield at the front

The Star Adventurer illuminated marquee plastic is especially impressive, having dozens and dozens of controllable LEDs to create intricate and attractive patterns.

Building the Star Adventurer marquee plastics
Building the Star Adventurer marquee plastics
The LEDs behind the plastic front
The LEDs behind the plastic front
Bottom aprons have addition playfield lighting installed, so these have to be assembled too
Bottom aprons have additional playfield lighting installed, so these have to be assembled too
Playfields near completion
Playfields near completion
The Toy Story 4 playfield is now fully populated
The Toy Story 4 playfield is now fully populated
Once construction is complete, playfields go to be tested
Once construction is complete, playfields go to be tested
Checking everything on the playfield works correctly
Checking everything on the playfield works correctly
Testing uses a special version of the regular in-game diagnostics software
Testing uses a special version of the regular in-game diagnostics software

If any electrical or mechanical errors are discovered, the playfield is sent to be fixed and a fault report generated so the problem doesn’t recur.

Fixing the problem
Fixing the problem
A series of completed Toy Story 4 Collector's Edition playfields which have passed testing
A series of completed Toy Story 4 Collector’s Edition playfields which have passed testing

Meanwhile, the cabinets and backboxes are being fitted with their components. These are simpler to build and are largely the same across different models with the exception of the metal trim and artwork decals.

Bare cabinets and backboxes
Bare cabinets and backboxes
Adding the cabinet hardware
Adding the hardware to this Limited Edition cabinet
Coin doors have two coin slots for North America but only a single slot for overseas orders
Coin doors have two coin slots for North America but only a single slot for most overseas orders
Adding the speakers, computer, power supply and monitor to the backboxes
Adding the speakers, computer, power supply and monitor to the backboxes

The completed cabinet, backbox and playfield are then brought together to make a finished machine.

The cabinet, backbox and playfield come together for the first time
The cabinet, backbox and playfield come together for the first time

The game is then tested to make sure all the parts are working together correctly.

Final testing
Final testing

Tested games then have the backglass and playfield glass added before they go to the packing and shipping department, where they are boxed and taken to the loading docks to await collection.

Crates of backglasses
Crates of backglasses
The end of the line
The end of the line
Boxed games are sealed and strapped to a pallet
Boxed games are sealed and strapped to a pallet
You're going to need lots of palettes
You’re going to need lots of pallets

Two different safety devices are attached to each shipping box. One detects whether the box has been tipped beyond a certain angle or fallen on its side, while the other indicates whether the box had suffered shock from being dropped. These are for the recipient to check before accepting the game from the shipping company.

The tip and drop indicators
The tip and drop indicators

You don’t need these liquid indicators to tell you when some of the more severe damage has occurred, such as having a fork lift’s prongs pushed through the cabinet or the box dropped from a truck. Two games returned to the JJP factory suffered potentially catastrophic damage which may render them unrepairable.

A Guns 'N Roses and a Toy Story 4 with severe shipping damage
A Guns ‘N Roses and a Toy Story 4 with severe shipping damage
Hopefully none of these will suffer the same fate
Hopefully none of these games heading to Pinball Expo will suffer the same fate
Toppers are all the craze right now
Toppers are all the craze right now
Boxes games waiting to ship
Boxes games waiting to ship

The loading dock isn’t only for outgoing games, of course. Deliveries for the factory also come in through these doors.

More rotisseries for the line
More rotisseries for the line

Also on the factory floor is the machine shop, where game designers and mechanical engineers can cut and shape metal, wood or plastic pieces, route playfields, or turn items on the lathe. This can be to make prototype pieces, create assembly or test fixtures, cut a whitewood playfield or make adjustments to existing pieces.

The machine shop
The machine shop
The powerful laser cutter and lathe
The powerful laser cutter and lathe
These two signs are probably not related
These two signs are probably not related

There was one area we couldn’t visit this time, and that’s the room where future games are in development. Maybe next time.

Future game development is behind these doors
Future game development is behind these doors

That concludes our look around the Jersey Jack Pinball factory. We hope you enjoyed seeing how they make their amazing games as much as we did.

It really is a sobering reminder of just how much work goes into mass-manufacturing a pinball machine – far more than most people imagine.

All the workstation set-ups – the tools, parts and documentation – have to be devised for each title. There are numerous custom parts which have to be designed, drawn, ordered, assembled, tested and then installed into the game, with sub-assembly fixtures and test boxes created for each of them.

And, of course, every part in the game has to be in stock ready for production, otherwise everything grinds to a halt.

Huge thanks to Eric Meunier for taking time out of his day to show us around and to Ken Cromwell for making it all happen during a busy pre-Expo time. Thanks also to Steve Ritchie and Mark Seiden for taking us out to lunch afterwards.

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