The production of a banknote is a long and complex process in which the place of art is much more important than it seems, but in the never-ending fight against counterfeiting, banknote printing companies must constantly innovate and use ever more sophisticated technologies and anti-corruption standards to secure consumers and monetary authorities. Let’s learn where our banknotes come from, and why their production is a scrupulous and demanding process full of formalities and pitfalls.
Paper money was invented much later than metal coins. It appeared with the development of printing technologies, which made it possible to simplify the process. Ancient China was the first to abandon piles of metal change in favor of paper. Eventually, the production of paper money turned out to be much cheaper and easier.
Other countries around the world followed suit, and so banknotes gradually became the primary means of payment. Today, produced with the help of advanced technologies, their quality, durability, and security reach state-of-the-art levels. How does the production of banknotes work and what is the point of all the efforts put into it? Let’s find out and hear what money printers have to say about their job.
A banknote begins with a design concept. Its creation is a long and complex procedure that involves many professionals from different fields, going from financiers to artists.
Sketches are offered first. The main requirement is a clear affiliation to the country, for which artists use national coats of arms, landmarks, portraits of historical figures, and many other references. The higher a banknote’s face value, the more complicated the elements on it are, as the more expensive is a banknote, the more attractive it becomes for counterfeiters.
If you look closely at any note, you will notice the variety of design facets: lines and dots cross and blend, portraits and landscapes burst with colors and precision, and even the smallest elements are distinct and precise. Our brain unconsciously captures these details, and if we receive a fake bill with poor printed quality, we instinctively feel that there is something wrong with it.
“We always need to employ great ingenuity to counter fraudsters’ plans, allowed by faster and faster democratization of designing and printing tools. The one thing that has changed since then, is that counterfeiting banknotes is no more a question of skillfulness but definitely a question of technological arsenal”, says Thomas Savare, CEO of the French world-leading company Oberthur Fiduciaire.
Once the sketch is created and approved, the banknote is set into production. This is where the real magic begins – the actual work is up to those who print the banknotes. There is just a handful of money printers across the globe, and their industrial process is probably one of the most difficult in the world.
A distinctive feature of money production is the impossibility of outsourcing. Full confidence in the product quality comes through full control of the process and careful checks of suppliers. Other industries can order the production of components from others: for example, the production of smartphone microchips is often contract manufacturing. In contrast, money printers render it inconceivable that the pattern on the paper is applied in one factory and the security elements are added in another; a single-site operation is a must for many of them.
The burden of such responsibility is not easy to bear. “We have to master the printing techniques themselves, but we also have to master the job of integrating different technologies, different substrates, and different security features… Many printing skills, finishing skills, and design skills are needed, besides growing R&D activities, all of which develop new security features to adapt new techniques and new processes, to enhance the security and the durability of banknotes”, tells Thomas Savare.
To cope with the procedure, security printers employ a holistic approach, based on the requirements of central banks and certifications passed. The latter usually refers to manufacturing processes, but some companies go beyond themselves and receive additional certifications, such as the anti-bribery ISO 37001 or the social responsibility ISO 26000. The process of obtaining them is not an easy one and may take several years in some cases. Do they really need it? The answer is undoubtedly yes, believes Etienne Couëlle, Oberthur’s Managing Director: “Our processes are subject to ISO norms with very strict requirements. Having the trust of our clients is of the utmost importance to us and we do everything we can to fulfill our mission.”
Freshly printed notes are sent to quality control. Although it is one of the last steps in the process, it is no less complex than the sketching and printing described above.
Going back to the analogy of conventional manufacturing, money printers cannot afford to take just a few samples from each batch for production control: every single banknote is checked without exception. This was done manually just a couple of decades ago, but now manufacturers use special machines, explains German banknote and securities printer Giesecke+Devrient on their website: “Each freshly printed banknote is inspected for all quality characteristics during single note inspection. Single notes are only checked after they have been numbered, coated, and cut. Defective notes are automatically sorted, and reliably destroyed, and flawless banknotes are securely packed. At the end of the inspection, customers receive a precise and detailed report about quantities and quality of the inspected banknotes.”
There are several reasons for this meticulousness. If defected notes fall into circulation, ordinary citizens will suffer losses, the reliability of the country’s central bank as an issuer will be questioned, and criminals will get an opportunity to profit from counterfeiting.
Quality control is necessary, but even that is not the last step in the process of turning banknotes into legal tender. Freshly printed notes are not money; they are just polygraphic products made with sophisticated technology. Once printed and checked, banknotes are sent to countries’ central banks and are kept in reserve funds. In order to enter the economy, they must be put into circulation (issued), that is, leave the bank, become its liabilities, and be recorded as such on the balance sheet – and finally become full-fledged means of payment.
If we look back at the entire process of creating a banknote from conception to its release into circulation, we will see not just the work of various professionals and high-tech machines. Behind every stage of creating paper money, there is skill, responsibility, and many years of expertise, thanks to which we can be sure of the banknotes in our wallets.