PHOTO: Benchmark founders Al Kress and Ron Halliburton (shown left, front and standing) are pictured with staff in front of company’s Hypoluxo, FL, factory.
HYPOLUXO, FL -- The aptly named Benchmark Games offers a lesson on how small American manufacturing companies can compete and win. Founded in 1993 by Al Kress and Ron Halliburton, the Hypoluxo, FL-based company lives up to its name by designing and manufacturing redemption games, self-contained merchandisers and utilities that players want and at price points that operators can afford.
The company's list of 15 hit games, known for their longevity and high earnings, should be familiar to any operator. Drill-O-Matic, Wheel-Deal, Big Rig Truckin' and Slam-A-Winner, along with location utilities like Ticket Station, an automated ticket redemption center, are among operator and player favorites.
"Redemption just doesn't die. We actually had to go back and revitalize some of our older games," Kress said. "We had to bring them back because of the demand by operators. We had no idea they would have the lifespan they have. Prizes come and go, but the games remain the same."
How successful are Benchmark's games? If longevity is any measure of success, then they are very successful. Take the company's second game, Big Haul, introduced in 1997. The unit was not only popular when first rolled out, but is still in production. So is Wheel-Deal, which has been in service and production for 11 years.
"We look at the players' point of view," Kress said. "We make games that are not too hard, and not too easy. We add little nuances that make players want to come back again and again. And our machines are easy on the eyes and encourage repeat play."
Player appeal is something akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. It's difficult to quantify, though players surely know it when they see it (or play it). Just as important as games themselves are the design and production processes that take place at Benchmark's 58,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility, manned by an elite team of 75 production workers. (The company employs 140 people in total.) Kress and Halliburton point with pride to the fact that nothing in their products is outsourced or subcontracted.
"We do everything here," Kress said, citing design, fabrication, machine shop, lasers, print shop, wire harnesses and assembly. "Because we do everything in-house we can make changes to design and performance on the spot. Want different payout percentages? We can do that. We can print new artwork and change software in the same day."
Halliburton underscored that every Benchmark game is original. The company neither imports nor licenses any of its products. "It's all in house, made in the U.S.A.," he said.
"We have an engineering department that includes hardware, software and mechanical design teams," Halliburton added. "We have seven people full-time people on CAD/CAM systems (computer-aided design and computer-aided production)."
According to Kress, Benchmark was not only among the first amusement machine manufacturers to incorporate such innovations as LED illumination, but was also an early adopter of high-quality materials like high-density polyethylene. Benchmark's games are designed to last, he said.
On the factory floor, modern fabrication machinery and assembly equipment keep the assembly lines moving and the quality control in check. According to Halliburton, the average age of production equipment is less than three years old. This new equipment isn't just for show. It is very much an investment that has paid off handsomely for Benchmark in terms of efficiency and quality.
Laser-cutting technology is one of many contemporary production tools used by the game factory. "Cutting material with laser tooling is very precise," Halliburton said, "so there's better fits. On the acrylic components, the edges are polished automatically by the laser."
Because Benchmark still manufactures just about every game it has ever introduced, the company must stay nimble; switching production from one model to another in a single day requires manufacturing agility on the part of the personnel. To accomplish this, the company strives to follow the latest lean manufacturing principles.
"If we were making 100 of a single product per day, that would be easy," Kress observed. "But when you have 15 different games and your factory is producing different models every day, it becomes a lot more complex."
As a result, all of Benchmark's production personnel are trained experts on more than a dozen different products. And these fabrication and assembly line workers, Kress stressed, must function at a higher level compared to production personnel who make the same product over and over again.
At Benchmark, production personnel are computer literate. Strategically positioned monitors on the factory floor can be accessed at any time for quick refresher courses on products or for a troubleshooting guide on any game's assembly. The kinds of problems that would have slowed or shut down an assembly line in the past are solved with a few keystrokes. The majority of problems that might develop on an assembly line can be solved by the workers themselves, without calling in an engineer or manager.
The benefits of Benchmark's manufacturing and design acumen are numerous, including originality. The company holds dozens of patents it regularly licenses to other manufacturers, including competing amusement machine factories in the U.S. and overseas. Halliburton noted that Benchmark and its competitors are on amiable terms when it comes to paying for intellectual property. "It's not been a war with threats of courts and lawsuits," he said.
Benchmark's quality has not gone unnoticed by overseas operators and manufacturers. The owners reported that overseas sales add a healthy chunk to the company's bottom line. Benchmark is reportedly involved in a deal that will license all of its games to an Asian company for sale throughout the Pacific Rim.
See also: At Benchmark Games, Continuous Improvement Reduces Lead-Time To Four Weeks
PHOTO: Some machines in Benchmark factory, from left, are lasers for cutting acrylic and other materials, CNC router for cabinet parts, and CNC Swiss blade for turning and milling metal components. Benchmark is among a few amusement machine manufacturers that operates two lasers.