As I was preparing for an upcoming trip to San Diego, California I couldn’t help but notice that I would be a mere two hour drive from Fountain Valley, the birthplace of the many SureFire flashlights in my collection. As a certifiable flashlight nut (flashaholic) I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity without attempting to visit their facilities while on the West Coast. Hopefully I could learn more about the company, people, and processes that create such great products.
SureFire is in the serious business of producing lights, accessories, and suppressors for use by military and law enforcement around the globe so I didn’t expect to just walk in and receive a tour. I fired off an e-mail, hoped for the best and was delighted (and a little surprised) they agreed to my request. As a result, I found myself standing outside this building on a mid-September morning.
Situated among tech and automotive manufacturers in a modern business park and less than a mile from the original SureFire facility, this building is just one of five in the area which houses the company’s various engineering, design, manufacturing and corporate functions. Upon entering I’m greeted with a big smile by Patty who presents me with some paperwork requiring my signature as well as my visitor’s badge. I’m almost in!
Since I was early for my appointment, I had a few minutes to look around the reception area and check out the numerous plaques and awards SureFire has received from military and law enforcement organizations. There are reminders everywhere that SureFire is in the business of providing reliable and effective tools to those who go into harm’s way. This same theme carries over into the adjacent demo room where nearly every handheld, wearable, and weapon-mounted light they make is on display.
A customer service representative was helping a walk-in customer choose a suitable replacement for his beloved SureFire 6P which had unfortunately gone missing. Overhearing their conversation reminded me that not everyone keeps up with the latest and greatest advances in portable lighting as the customer was having difficulty comprehending that the “new” LED lights could provide so much more output and run much longer than the old incandescent versions. Handheld lighting has come a long way since SureFire first introduced the 6P in 1988!
My escort, Jeremy, arrived soon afterward and, after introductions were out of the way, we hopped in his truck for a brief drive across the river to the SureFire machining center in neighboring Santa Ana. Once there we met up with Frank, a second-generation SureFire employee, who helped guide us around the facility and show us the first steps in the manufacturing process.
Inside the machining center there are literally tons of raw materials neatly staged in racks and ready to be turned into any number of different parts. Solid aluminum stock is used for the majority of parts although other metals are also used.
Rows of high-capacity CNC milling machines are on hand to transform the raw materials into something that resembles the finished product or component. Reliability of these machines is so important that SureFire maintains a supply of spare parts and has their own specially trained employees to perform all servicing. To minimize downtime during changeovers, rolling carts are prepared in advance with the tooling needed for the next items in the production queue.
The milling machines are absolute marvels unto themselves, capable of performing operations on two separate pieces at the same time. It is amazing to watch the computer controlled machining, rapid automated tool changes, and coordination between various parts of the machine. The choreography required to pull this off in the most efficient way possible requires careful and accurate programming for each individual part.
Once the machining is complete, parts such as flashlight bodies are washed and deburred using ceramic media with screw-on caps protecting the head and tailcap threads. From here the bodies are shipped to local shops for anodizing.
The operation was in full swing while I was at the machining center and everything was neat, well organized and extremely clean. However, I was surprised when Frank apologized for the lack of housekeeping and pointed out that they had some extra cleaning planned for the following day! Of all the things I saw at the machining center, I believe I was most impressed by the pride and ownership he felt for his part of the process.
After leaving the machining center we drove back to our starting point where Jeremy led me through the next steps in the production process. It all starts in the receiving area where parts arriving from the machining center, anodizing shops, and other vendors are all placed neatly into storage racks until needed for assembly.
The assembly area is made up of numerous workstations where technicians do the majority of the work by hand, testing components and sub-assemblies for correct operation, throughout the process. Installation of the LEDs receives special attention in the form of an optical device that ensures each and every emitter is perfectly centered behind its optic or reflector.
At the end of the assembly process, an employee installs the batteries and performs one last operational check before placing each flashlight in its final packaging. From there it’s on to the warehouse area where the lights are staged until they are shipped out.
All that’s left is picking orders and shipping them to customers!
Being able to see this operation was a thrill, not only because I’m a flashlight nut but also because I’m a fan of American manufacturing. SureFire has been in business for 35 years now and has resisted the temptation to ship large chunks of their manufacturing process overseas in pursuit of added profits. Some flashlight components, particularly some LEDs, aren’t available from US manufacturers and are sourced globally but I saw enough to convince me that the overwhelming bulk of the production and all of the assembly takes place in the good old USA. Their remaining products such as sound suppressors, rifle magazines, hearing protection, 123A batteries, and pens are entirely Made in the USA. A full description of their product origins is available on the SureFire website.
As a collector of older SureFire flashlights I also experienced a touch of nostalgia during the tour as there were several reminders of their past products. Whether it was the classic 6Z CombatLight displayed in the demo room or the glass case chock full of classic flashlight bodies at the machining center, there were indications that SureFire is a company that remembers its origins even while developing the next generation of illumination tools.
A visit like this is a privilege normally reserved for VIPs and “big” media types. Since I am neither I really appreciate having the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of the SureFire production process. A special thanks to Thomas for making this happen, Jeremy for answering my many questions and his patience with me during the tour, Frank for explaining so much about the machining process, and everyone else I met who made the visit so memorable.
For more information about SureFire, check out the links below:
- SureFire website homepage
- About SureFire
- SureFire Products are Designed and Built in the USA
- SureFire Illumination Tools
- SureFire Advanced Illumination