MSD Ignition: A Peek Inside the Famous Red Box

Welcome to El Paso, Texas, home of MSD Ignition. Nestled in the desert sand and tumble-weeds is one of the most technologically advanced automotive companies in the country. In a building over 300,000 square feet, MSD develops, engineers, prototypes, and manufactures a product line of over 150 strong. Over 500 people including engineers, technicians and assembly specialists all work together to design and manufacture the entire MSD product line. MSD is famous for their widely used ignition controllers, Pro-Billet Distributors, coils, spark plug wires and ignition accessories.

MSD Ignition originally started out as a small company known as Autotronic Controls Corp. Autotronic Controls Corp. (ACC) was founded in 1970 as a research and development company by two engineers from White Sands, New Mexico Missile Range. The men and their other partners were working on a lean burn fuel system called the Electrasonic Fuel Induction System to help fuel economy of new and older automobiles.

Introducing the new MSD 60000AL, the home addition.

As the new fuel system was being perfected, the air/fuel mixture was becoming so lean that it was difficult for conventional breaker points and early electronic ignitions to ignite it. The men of ACC then started investigating a new ignition system by using modern technology called Capacitive Discharge (CD). The CD design opened another door for the ignition, the capability to spark multiple times.

ACC has produced the best performing and most popular performance ignitions for over 20 years. The high energy spark of the CD design combined with multiple sparks resulted in a potent ignition. Not only did the Multiple Spark Discharge (MSD) ignite the lean fuel mixture, it made overall improvements in the engine’s performance. Improved starting, smooth idle, less emissions and more power are benefits every car and truck can take advantage of, especially race cars.

Professional racers learned of the new MSD quickly and soon word spread throughout the racing world. Since then, MSD ignition solutions have gone on to be the ignition of choice of the top professional drivers in NHRAIHRA,NASCARWorld of Outlaws, DIRT, SCORE, IDBA and many more.

Aside from developing racing products, MSD has a full line of “street” products for the average automotive enthusiasts. But don’t think that your run of the mill MSD product doesn’t have the same technology as their racing products, because they do. Each and every part that comes out of this facility is treated equally; all the way from prototyping to testing and the finished product. So that MSD 6AL you just put in your car shares similar characteristics and even contains some of the same components as a professional race car.

To get a better understanding on how MSD does this, we took a sneak peak inside their facility. Our first stop through MSD was the engineering department. Here a hand full of designers and engineers tinker with CAD designs and technical electrical schematics. This is where MSD’s innovation is created. Each product designed here is tested through advanced data and electrical simulations to ensure the designs are fully functional and can withstand rigorous use.

While in the engineering department, we arrived just in time to see some final testing and development of MSD’s new 6AL2 Ignition box scheduled to release in the near future. We were able to see the multiple spark in real time! The engineers were also checking for crank timing through the distributor. If everything checks out, the 6AL2 is ready to be put into a real life testing environment on one of MSD’s engine dynos. MSD has a hall of 5 different engine dynos, all equipped with different types of engines to test different applications. There are three water brake and one eddy current dyno. All of them feature computer controls and multi-channel data acquisition equipment. A variety of engines from carbureted sprint engines to fuel injected big blocks, are on hand.

Once the prototype products are fully tested on the engine dynos, MSD takes it one step further and installs the product on a vehicle to test on MSD’s chassis dyno. Here engineers and technicians can record and observe how each component operates on a vehicle while undergoing a wide range of conditions and loads. While we were in the dyno bay, MSD had a sweet 9 second Fox Body Mustang strapped onto the dyno. This vehicle was turbocharged and fully equipped with MSD products. MSD puts their products through these harsh tests multiple times before it hits the assembly line to ensure their products work properly and are durable enough for extreme conditions. Some employees even use their own vehicles to test MSD’s products in real life situations including heat, cold, and rain.

As soon as a new MSD product receives a seal of approval, it is ready for the production line. MSD’s facility has a full assembly line of personnel putting each product together by hand. Every piece of circuitry is assembled by hand through various stages of production. We did spy a few industrial machines however. The only way MSD can produce superior quality products is to control all the aspects of engineering and production; which is exactly why MSD’s CNC area continues to grow! MSD has three CNC mills (two 3-axis, one 5-axis), one lathe and a surface grinder. The famous red ignition box starts out in a CNC machine where the metal is formed to create the outer casings. MSD Technicians use Surfcam computer software to program state-of-the-art CNC machinery. These precision machines are used for a variety of work including prototype and production.

A variety of other MSD products such as rotors, coil housings, distributor caps and much more are all injection molded. MSD has two Electric Discharge Machines (EDM) to produce accurate molds for High Pressure Vertical Insert Mold machines, two Arburg presses and an 80 Ton Battenfield. The plastic casings produced by these machines still have that famous red color that MSD is known for. With each bag of material, a handful of red plastic is added which is just enough to produce that rich red we all recognize.

Continuing through the assembly line, we came across the Distributor Assembly area. The Distributor Department covers over 20,000 square feet! Every billet distributor is hand assembled and closely inspected throughout the entire process. Just like MSD’s ignition products, every distributor is put in a spin fixture to test the mechanical advance, rotor phasing and magnetic pickup operation. To go along with the distributors, right next door is the spark plug wire assembly area.

The Spark Plug Wire Department recently expanded into a new 8,000 square foot area and acquired an automated assembly machine. This machine cuts, strips and crimps wires. Building spark plug wires is a full time task at MSD. MSD builds custom wire sets ranging from Honda 4-cylinders to V-10 Viper engines.

Up next is the Focus Factory. This is where the high performance racing products are produced. From NASCAR toNHRA, each MSD sponsored race car receives their ignition parts straight from the Focus Factory. Each ignition component goes through the same rigorous testing procedures as all the other MSD products, but these components will be going into custom racing applications which require a bit more customization and attention. Amazingly enough, each of these high performance products are hand assembled, tested, and shipped out from within this single department.

One of the more interesting parts of MSD’s facility was the area known as the Burn In area. This is where everyMSD ignition component endures a full bombardment of electrical current at high voltage. Humming and buzzing, each ignition box sits on the Burn In racks for hours at a time with high voltage flowing through them in an attempt to withstand the most extreme electrical surges. Although this process isn’t necessarily equivalent to real life situations, it proves the quality and durability of the MSD product line beyond it’s normal use. Every ignition goes through a battery of hands-on tests before and after the burn-in procedure. Here, electronic specialists inspect wire routing, connections, output characteristics and the electronic signals of the components.

The last and final stop on our tour and for the MSD products is the packaging and shipping department. After going through assembly and lengthy test procedures the components finally reach the packaging area. Final decals are applied and a complete set of instructions and installation parts are included before being boxed into MSD’s fancy packaging. The products are then ready to be shipped to customers. The MSD Shipping area covers over 40,000 square feet! Imagine being surrounded with racks of the best performing ignition components available – a racer’s dream! A full staff keeps tabs on all of the products with computer scanning technology as product ships every day.

That concludes the tour of MSD’s facility in El Paso, Texas.

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