Took me a little while to find this but here's a great post from CPR made earlier in the year about their playfield production process and quality. I wish JJP would use them versus Mirco.
I have to jump in here as well, on four issues. The first was the Xenon PFs that we ran out of last year. The Xenon's I cut were in no way shape or form ever going to satisfy the entire interest but at the time I had the wood and inserts for a very limited number of PFs. I decided that rather than idle the CNC and layoff the guys it made more since to actually make the PFs I had materials for at the time. The rest of the material had been ordered but the lead times on our materials can be HUGE! It just made since to keep everyone employed and the machines working while new supplies were on route.
The second point I have to comment on is our wood. I absolutely believe that our wood is by FAR the best in the world. We have had many suppliers over the years and in bad times have been forced to use the same wood as the other PF manufacturer uses all the time and let me tell you that doing so is our last resort. Playfield wood over the decades has often been whatever was available to the manufacturers. Many PFs especially in the 70s and 80s PFs used three layers of thick cheap filler wood with two thin layers of maple on the faces, something you could buy at your local building supply only with thicker face veneers. For decades most of the better playfield wood came from North American Plywood near Chicago. It used sweet gum as its filler cores and .040" face veneers. But in 2008 in the downturn they liquidated their custom plywood mill and everyone was scrambling to find wood, even Stern. We then shifted to Marion Plywood from Wisconsin who made two very good orders for us before they shifted their glues to a more green product that warped like crazy. We even tried a Russian Baltic Birch that had custom maple veneers glued to it. It was expensive and unsuitable for several reasons. Finally, the current supplier for Stern contacted us and offered to make our wood. This was several years ago now and we couldn't have been happier as they work directly with us to produce the very best CUSTOM wood you can buy ANYWHERE! Their standard wood for Stern is a good one side panel with 3 layers of white ash and a 0.048" face veneers. After many consultations with their tech guys we came up with what I know is the best playfield wood in the world. We use the same basic setup as Stern, 3 layers of white ash cores then we use 4 layers of maritime hard maple BUT we increased the thickness of the two face veneers by 64% to get a nominal face thickness of 0.075". These huge and thick ONE piece veneers are crazy expensive and we always get this top grade veneer on BOTH sides of your PF. This alone added $12 to the cost of each panel vs just using a second grade veneer on the bottom like Stern does. There's nothing wrong with the way Stern does it, as they just refuse any board they want and since they are so close to the mill, the mill just picks it up with the next load and credits them. We however are a $4000 freight bill away so that won't work. We pay a lot extra to get the very best wood they can produce right off the start. You get a much nicer product and a much denser and tougher PF. This wood is 25% heavier for the same size panel as our old wood and nearly a third heavier as Baltic Birch which some other playfield manufacturers use. I would love to use cheaper wood like some others do, after all why would I pay $12.50/sqft landed when I can get birch at less than $2.00sqft? We use the best densest hardest custom wood we can get because we think its worth it and we always try to make the very best product we can.
There are other point is that we intentionally make three levels of quality. Wow, really? We always try to make perfect playfields, every single time but in the past we ALWAYS did full spot color silkscreens which meant that each and every color layer is individually vectored with trapping layers built and silk screened one color at a time, one on top of the other. 14 colors means 14 trips through the screen press. 14! Even the slightest misalignment in any single layer of the normal 12-14 color process means the final product isn't a gold anymore. Its wood, a living surface so if the ink doesn't lay down into every nook and cranny of every square mm of the grain then its not a gold. If a single piece of dust get in the screen and makes its way into the print which is very hard to prevent then its really not a gold anymore. To screen press a playfield we could never do more than about 1 color a day just due to the logistics of cleaning the ink you just used out of the screen trying to save what you can, then removing the screen and washing it with cleaner and paper towels, then once the ink is out, rinsing and then using a stripper to remove the image from the screen, then rinsing, then bleaching the screen to remove all traces of the previous image, rinsing, then drying the screen. Then you have to coat the screen with a photosensitive liquid and let that dry. Then you lay on your full size and expensive direct contact positive and expose the whole thing to a powerful UV light, then immediately wash the screen once more to expose the image which means a third drying of the screen! Then mount it and align it precisely to the previous image on the screen press, which always involves a few trial and error hits on test prints. Add in a cleaned and sharpened squeegee and print your single color...... now repeat this process for each and every color on the playfield. Any misalignment at all, even as small as 1/64"in ANY layer and you may not have a gold, any mark from handing and small dropout of ink, and deep grain that the ink didn't get to and you may not have a gold anymore. Screen printing is many many times harder to do than printing it digitally. Producing artwork for screen printing is horrendously more difficult than prepping something for a digital print. We are very lucky that we have years worth of vectored artwork that can fairly easily be converted for digital use to be used on our big flatbed but you can't go the other way. If you printed 100 PFs and have 10 that are not perfect you had no choice but to sell them, hence silvers and bronze. It could take you as long as 2 weeks to reprint those 10 PFs. Now if you are doing these on a digital printer you have eliminated ANY chance of a misalignment because its a single flat image not 12-14 images laid on top of one another, the printer is spraying, so surface imperfections are easily covered and there is no screen to get contaminated. So for screen printing, since the artwork is many times more complex in comparison and the printing method is many times more complex its no wonder that we didn't always get 100% gold. Of course if you have something go sideways on a digital print it takes but minutes to sand the ink off and clean it up and run it through the printer once again, $8 in inks costs versus basically spending two weeks trying to rescreen a few seconds. But now that we have the same tech as others we can also fairly easily reprint an error so there will be much fewer silver and bronzes in our future.
Making the right number of PFs for everyone is more art than anything else. Playfields are crazy expensive to make and the production costs are all up front. In some cases royalties and licensing alone can cost as high as 25% of the full retail value of the PF, do some quick math and figure out the size of the check you'd have to write to cover that on 100 pfs!! Inserts can cost $25-$100 per PF due to minimum requirements of the molders. You can figure out our wood costs from above. Add in the costs of 2 CNCs, 2 laser cutters, a silk screen operation, a huge UV flatbed etc.... now figure that 50% of the guys who signed up don't buy!! In the case of Corvette PFs we had 75% of people who signed up didn't purchase as they promised! Have two or three of these happen in a row and anyone would become gun shy real quick or we risk losing our homes! I tried deposits when I first started this and it was a nightmare, lately we have on rare occasions used them again with much more success so maybe that's a possibility but truthfully making smaller numbers is the safest thing to do. Using the digital system instead of silk screening makes much more sense and having the ability to digitally reprint our screen printed seconds may get rid of them almost entirely.
Making PFs is complex, silk screening playfields is stoopid complex and expensive in the very small numbers we make but we do it because we love it.
Also, just to add, here's a post from Vid about maple vs birch playfields. Interesting stuff.
pinball playfield wood (resized).JPG