A Look at the Technology Behind Modern Currency Production

This period has been characterized by rising global security issues that affect the stability of banking institutions and currency, and the US currency has continued to undergo upgrades to ensure its lasting value.
Mario L. Major

In an era marked by the 'death of cash' and the quick rise of cryptocurrency, questions are starting to pop up more and more about anti-counterfeiting measures being taken for existing paper currencies, particularly in the United States. One of cryptocurrencies biggest pulls is that it's anonymous and nearly impossible to hack. It's gotten cash-lovers wondering if they could transfer that technology to bills in order to save cash from becoming irrelevant. 


But how is modern cash even produced? What's the technology behind it? The clues to the future of bills could be found in the United States' currency production. 

When we look at the global market, the US currency is a unique case in point. Many other world currencies have been phased out following socio-political unrest that forced the old currency into extinction, or retired completely in favor of a currency that reflected an economic and political consolidation of resources, as in the case of the Euro. Amazingly, little has changed in the last 100 years, save a few cosmetic upgrades.

A Look at the Technology Behind Modern Currency Production
A Look at the Woven Fibers in Currency Source: Crane Currency

Crane Currency, the banknote manufacturer, was originally commissioned by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to produce the paper that went into the federal bank notes in 1879, a job it has held to this day. The company was behind the massive overhaul of the $100 bill, weaving new motion technology into the notes. In fact, when we consider ‘paper money’ is in fact a blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, the choice of weaving versus printing on the surface makes a significant difference. Also, the addition of a raised printing press in the current production process elevates security.

There were five distinctive new security features added:

- A security thread that glows when introduced to ultraviolet light

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- A 3D Security Ribbon that features images that change with the directional tilt of the note (the ribbon is also woven into the paper rather than printed for added security)

- One iconic symbol on the note (in the case of the $100 note the Bell in the Inkwell) changes color.

- A faint second image is superimposed over the Watermark.

- Finally, an additional Color-Shifting Ink is used in some of the numerals, in this case, the one printed in the lower right-hand corner.

Despite these upgrades, the current US currency is not without its critics. New York Times writer and founder of Dollar ReDe$ign, an advocacy group that has created a campaign to completely rebrand the US dollar, identified 5 areas for improvement of the US currency: Size, Color, Functionality, Composition, and Symbolism. Interesting to note that in the 5 years since this article was written, the 2013 $100 bill design overhaul happened, which addressed color and functionality, and in an effort to replace the images of presidents and our founding fathers with more culturally relevant figures, the $20 bill image was changed to Harriet Tubman, a freedom advocate, with the $5 and $10 bill planned for a change in the next 3 years, a dramatic change to the symbolic associations of the money.

A Look at the Technology Behind Modern Currency Production
Source: Crane Currency

As Len Olijar, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, indicates, counterfeiting is of course still an issue; however, the size of the operations has been dramatically downscaled in recent decades, a sign of an overall greater effectiveness in the network of security employed by international banks to protect international currency: "Decades ago counterfeiting was done primarily by large print shops that would do very large volumes of notes," he says, adding, "Today, domestically in the United States, the counterfeiting threat is increasingly becoming scanners and printers, and people printing a few notes at a time."