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The Ball Matters! …a look into Penn’s Tennis Ball Factory

October 14, 2002 04:43 PM

As a sectional league coordinator for USA League Tennis, I was treated last weekend to a fascinating look inside Penn’s Tennis Ball Factory in Phoenix, AZ.

Penn has been the official ball of USA League Tennis for 15 years and is the world’s largest tennis ball manufacturer. Amy Wishingrad, Eastern Promotions Manager for HEAD/Penn Racquet Sports, invited the 17 sectional league coordinators, national league staff and National Committee Chairman Sharon Gault for a behind the scenes, “not offered to the public” tour of the only factory in the United States that makes tennis balls.

The first step into Penn’s Tennis Ball Factory is a shock to your senses! Your nose is overwhelmed by the undeniable scent of over 250,000 balls that will be canned that day! You know, that unmistakable smell of yellow fuzz, rubber and glue! Your eyes can’t believe the frantic activity of man and machine reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! We were offered earplugs to fend off the noise.

It takes 80 workers on 3 separate shifts (24/5) and a whole bunch of very clever machinery to crank out a quarter of a million tennis balls each day. Each ball goes through 21 production steps and 24 quality checks. Those that don’t make the grade are sold as practice balls or even bagged for the doggies!

The rubber comes from Malaysia and is mixed with 11 secret ingredients into a clump resembling “flubber”. It is placed on a large spinning drum that smoothes and thins the clump that is then extruded into pellets. The pellets are put into a mold that turns them into hemispheres or half of a tennis ball. This is where you think you are in a very large kitchen turning out cookies or biscuits!

The edges of the halves are buffed and then coated with adhesive. Another mold puts the two halves together and seals between 10-13 pounds of pressure into the rubber ball. It’s at this point, that the ball will bounce precisely each time! The ball is then abraded to grab onto the felt when the cover is applied.

According to Penn, the cover for Penn balls is made of an ideal blend of nylon, wool and cotton felt, pre-tensioned to prevent shrinkage in production as well as play. The felt is punched out so that two pieces will cover the ball. Felt for about 40 balls are placed into a press so tight that just the edges are exposed when dipped into a vat of glue. This next step costs Penn $30,000 a year in Band-Aids and is in the process of improved automation! The two felts are applied to the rubber ball and bonded with glue. A third cure bonds the cover and center and then the balls are put in a steamer to fluff the nap. Testing assures uniformity of bounce, deformation, and durability. The balls are imprinted with the distinctive Penn logo and within minutes the balls are canned with 11-13 pounds of pressure and then sealed.

What about the numbers on the ball? They use a totally random process to put the cans in cases and that is why you might see a case of mostly # 2s! They use to make #s 1-8 and now make #s 1-4. We suggested just #1s and #2s for odd and even courts and a better chance of getting an equal number per case. They didn’t laugh and even said they would think about it!

It was an amazing tour! Thanks again to Amy Wishingrad and the plant folks at Penn. If you want to see the process, visit Penn’s website: www.pennracquet.com and click on Virtual Factory!

-- Marilyn Sherman, USTA Southern Section Director of Adult Tennis




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