The Arcade Classic That Tilted Digital

Pinball machine manufacturers have reinvented the game using simulation-driven design, rapid prototyping, data analytics and more—and digital transformation has never been more fun.

Chiming bells. Snapping flippers. The click-clack of a score changing.

The sounds of pinball evoke a classic 1980s arcade filled with teenagers pushing quarters into coin slots. Old pinball machines are nostalgic pieces of technology transporting us back to this time.

But modern-day pinball is a whole different technological game. Like many other products, pinball has had to reinvent itself in the digital age, with today’s state-of-the-art machines sporting cameras, large LCD screens, internet connectivity, increasingly complex code, custom animation and more.

Playfield of Stern Pinball’s Godzilla machine. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

Playfield of Stern Pinball’s Godzilla machine. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

Pinball machine manufacturers have had to adapt. By increasing their use of CAD and simulation software, adopting 3D printing and other methods of rapid prototyping, embracing data analytics and diversifying their engineering workforce, pinball makers have brought the game into the 21st century—and set a high score for digital transformation.  

Digitizing pinball design and testing

Pinball is a merging of art and engineering. The aesthetic appeal is what draws players in. Engaging gameplay and functioning machines keep the players around. The continued introduction of new design tools has helped merge these two worlds.

“Our manufacturing and fabrication skills have been very positively affected by CAD because it inherently brings reliable repeatability to automation,” George Gomez, chief creative officer at Stern Pinball, told engineering.com. Founded in 1977, Stern is now the largest producer of pinball machines in the world, reporting sales growth of 15-20% every year since 2008.

Pinball machines go through a lot of abuse out in arcades and bars around the world. Players slap the sides and nudge the machine around. The point of the game itself is to launch the pinball into bumpers, drop targets and slings. Simulation tools have helped companies like Jersey Jack Pinball, the second largest producer of pinball machines, ensure their designs can stand up to these forces.

Jersey Jack game designer Eric Meunier told engineering.com that the company uses Solidworks for 3D modeling as well as for stress and strain simulations. These analyses are a valuable tool when designing the plastic injection molded pieces that populate a pinball machine.

“You need to understand how it will wear when you‘re rocketing an 88-gram steel ball at it,” Meunier says. “It‘s important to do that analysis ahead of time before you’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in tooling.”

CAD model of Jersey Jack’s Godfather pinball machine. (Image: Jersey Jack.)

CAD model of Jersey Jack’s Godfather pinball machine. (Image: Jersey Jack.)

But pinball is a physical game, and simulations alone don’t cut it. That’s why Meunier also relies on rapid prototyping. He says he can use his tool shop’s laser cutter to go from a Solidworks sketch to a physical part in “under an hour.” He also uses 3D printing on a near-daily basis.

“As I’m conceptualizing something, I want to throw a ball at something and see how it works,” Meunier says.

Bring on the data

The addition of modern features in pinball games has not only been to draw in players. It has also been a bonus for designers. With internet connectivity, pinball machines can evolve over time with software updates to introduce completely new gameplay for years after release. The connection also uploads an abundant amount of data back to machine manufacturers.

On Stern pinball machines, players can scan a personal QR code before playing to keep track of their progress and, if they’re good enough, to land on worldwide high score boards. On the back end, this provides a wealth of information to Stern’s designers.

“It provides mountains of real data on game and feature performance from the global network of games,” Gomez says. “We’ve never had so much insight.”

A QR code scanner on the new Stern Venom pinball machine. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

A QR code scanner on the new Stern Venom pinball machine. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

By observing the parts of the game players most interact with and what strategies they gravitate towards, Stern can work to better balance the game. It also keeps dedicated players coming back, wanting to see what has changed with the machine through software updates.

“It’s no different than any other connected product such as your computer, phone or car,” Gomez says. “The wealth of data that we get from connected games gives us incredible insight that is no longer based on someone’s gut feeling or speculation about how something works. It also provides insight into geographic and cultural trends and performance.”

The changing workforce

As pinball has evolved, so too has the process of designing and building pinball machines. In the old days, Gomez says, a single designer could lay out the playfield and configure the relays to create the game’s logic. They might have some help from a mechanical or electrical engineer to get the game into production, but it was largely a solo effort. Today, that’s changed completely.

“Today’s teams include the designer, a lead developer, numerous additional software engineers and the artists,” Gomez said. “The motion graphics team is full of specialists, storyboard artists, modelers, animators, movie makers, and UI specialists. Of course, there are sound designers, composers and performers creating audio. Electrical engineers and technicians design the electronics platform that supports all devices, displays, audio and game logic.”

This combination of artists, engineers, and pinball experts come together to create the design, code and hardware for the game. Then comes the complexity of manufacturing and assembly. A significant amount of the work is still done by hand due to the mix of materials inside the cabinet and the intricacy of these machines.

“If you try to find other products that include glass, wood, plastic, steel, cabling, hardware, and circuit boards… automotive, aerospace, and not much else has all these different commodity styles. So we’re looking to some of those industry leaders on how they build their teams effectively,” Meunier said.

Krystle Gemnich, a production quality technician at Jersey Jack, makes an adjustment before a Toy Story 4 pinball machine playfield moves further down the line. (Image: Jersey Jack Pinball.)

Krystle Gemnich, a production quality technician at Jersey Jack, makes an adjustment before a Toy Story 4 pinball machine playfield moves further down the line. (Image: Jersey Jack Pinball.)

Meunier says that Jersey Jack has grown from five people when he started with the company in 2012 to more than 100 employees today. During that growth period, increasing diversity in their workforce has been a priority to try to involve more people in the largely male dominated world of pinball.

“We have increased and diversified our engineering strength to include women and other minorities that provide a different perspective on pinball and on engineering. It’s great to have other people playing and helping design the games,” Meunier said.

To keep up with increased demand, Stern just made some major manufacturing changes. The company massively increased their manufacturing space, investing in new employees and several new facilities totaling over 200,000 square feet in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

“The move has allowed us to step back and look hard at the flow of material, the application of tooling and the distribution of the work we do. Any move is an opportunity to re-evaluate methods,” Gomez says.

Behind-the-scenes of Stern Pinball’s manufacturing floor. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

Behind-the-scenes of Stern Pinball’s manufacturing floor. (Image: Stern Pinball.)

Going forward, Gomez sees their major workforce growth shifting to handle the massive amounts of information being fed back to them by the connected pinball machines.

“The next wave of engineers we hire might be data engineers and scientists to improve our ability to interpret the data,” Gomez says.

As far as what other industries can take away from this growth and digital transformation, Gomez thinks the biggest lesson is on the business side.

“I think we’ve re-invested in our business carefully; letting the business we do guide our growth realistically. I also think it’s important for the staff to understand goals and targets so that everyone is pulling the rope in one direction.”