The economy of pinball manufacturing…

Addams Family's Thing

There is another half of the pinball economy; that of the manufacturing.

A pinball machine is a very complex electromechanical system controlled by a comprehensive state machine implemented in software. The implementation is complicated by such fun little details like making sure that no two coils fire simultaneously on a single power supply section. If they do, a fuse blows.

But a pinball machine has to do more than just make noise and fire coils at the right time. A successful machine has to have some kind of a theme that is tied together into the grand package. Furthermore, game play has to “flow” in that certain shots need to play off of each other.

A pinball machine must also be designed such that the novice player can achieve rewards fairly easily without understanding what they doing. At the same time, a well designed machine will offer unique challenges to an advanced player, frequently with some kind of “super bonus round” that can only be had by collecting all other modes or challenges.

While any two pinball machines made by the same manufacturer around the same year will have a number of components that can be interchanged, every machine has many unique components ranging from specially shaped custom printed plastics, to particularly shaped pieces of metal, to molded plastic ball guides under the playfield, to custom wire ramps, and so on.

Many machines also have a major “toy” or two that are completely unique, large, and often have electromechanical subsystems dedicated entirely to their integration into gameplay.

Bookcase Mechanism

For example, Addams Family (I own the gold edition) has a bookcase which contains 4 optical switches and a custom motor with gearbox for making it turn. In other words, a relatively complex one-off mechanism.

The end result of all of this is that every pinball machine manufactured is built during some part of a single production run. Once the manufacturing run is done, the assembly line is torn down and reconfigured for a completely different machine to be built.

Once a production run is completed, there will never be another instance of that particular machine built!

Fortunately, the sales cycle on a machine is long enough that the manufacturer doesn’t have to predict how many machines of any given title should be built before launch day.

For the manufacturer, the success of any given machine is determined by how many units sell. Like any manufacturing business, it is also the manufacturer’s goal to make each machine as cheap as possible. This means that component tolerances tend to be very tight and one of the first corners to be cut is maintainability (see my previous post and witness the pain of changing a simple rubber ring).

For the route operator, the success of any given machine is a combination of how many quarters are dropped into it and how long it can remain on location as a popular machine to play. Obviously, buying fewer machines and rotating them less often lowers the cost of operation.

This leads to an interesting conundrum. The manufacturer makes money by selling more machines and by making the machines as cheap as possible. The route operator makes more money by buying fewer machines and maintaining the ones he has less often (or by cutting corners — again, the topic of another post). A bit of a conflict.

For the pinball enthusiast that takes the big step into machine ownership, maintenance of said machines can be difficult. If a unique part breaks beyond repair, finding a replacement may be completely impossible. Of course, this has led to a very healthy aftermarket for both used and New Old Stock (NOS — components that are new, but are no longer manufactured) parts.

Even some of the commodity components are no longer made. For example, the Comet’s displays are driven by chips that are quite difficult to find and cost upwards of $25/each for a component that likely sold for around $1 originally. Since any given display configuration was reused across multiple machines, this has led to an interesting market of re-designed displays made from LEDs that offer a brighter and many times more efficient display than the original gas plasma technology that was used.

One of the Comet’s displays is dead. If it is just the glass — the physical display itself — then it will be easy and pretty cheap to fix. However, if it proves to be some of the components driving the display, I may choose to engineer my own replacement display technology.

I could certainly plop down the $220 for the replacement LED displays already manufactured. But that’d be against my Maker’s ethos.

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