Saturday, June 15, 2024

From Lithography to Micro-Lenses: How Oberthur Fiduciaire Conquered Banknote Printing

The world changes fast, and so does every industry, banknote printing included. This niche world is small and secretive, yet there’s a way to see how it evolved. French security printer Oberthur Fiduciaire has come a long way since it started as a small local printing business, and has seen it all during its journey. Let’s take a look at how the company has grown and changed over the years, and how its movements reflected the shifts in the security printing industry as a whole. 

Cash or card? Some may find this question a bit outdated, but many think otherwise. The share of cash in the global economy might somewhat decrease, but people still use it as a means of budgeting, storing value in times of uncertainty, protecting their privacy and out of simple convenience. “Cash is not going to continue to decline at the rate we’ve seen in the past decade,” says Natalie Ceeney, chair of Cash Access UK. “To see further declines in cash use we’d have to see fundamental changes in society, like better financial resilience and reductions in poverty levels.”

At that, the ongoing popularity of cash draws attention of counterfeiters equipped with all widely available means of reproduction. Given all the modern technology marvels, producing a counterfeit banknote would seem easy – if not for specialized printers that stand guard over the security of cash and keep pushing the industry ahead of criminals. Let’s meet one of these companies and see how creating safe and secure banknotes has resulted in its own success and reflected the growth of an entire industry.

How innovations set the pace  

The history of Oberthur Fiduciaire, one of the world’s leading private security printers, begins more than a century ago when François-Charles Oberthür and his partner founded the Oberthur Printing Works (Imprimerie Oberthür) in the French town of Rennes. A specialist in engraving, one of the early adopters of the then-innovative technique of lithography and inventor of the French standard reference for tints, Oberthür set a course that the company would follow throughout its existence – to build a business based on innovation and consistently high quality.

Decades later, the French printer still adheres to this notion, says Oberthur Fiduciaire’s CEO Thomas Savare: “We must innovate to ensure that we are always one or more steps ahead of the counterfeiters. Innovation is also needed to stand out from the competition and ensure the trust of central banks and the billions of people who use banknotes every day.” Matching the spirit, the company has recently bolstered its high-tech portfolio with Swedish micro-optical technologies company Rolling Optics that holds over 50 patents in the industry, and this cooperation has already brought its fruits. Their new Anima™ security thread complements Oberthur Fiduciaire’s range of impossible-to-copy offerings: it features micro-lenses that create a stereoscopic effect in high-fidelity image generation used in 3D glasses, latest displays – and in the convenient bills sitting in your wallet. Albeit highly innovative, Anima is just another product in the company’s premium thread and foil segment offered to monetary authorities around the world – the history of work with which begins with Imprimerie Oberthür amazing millions of French with its artistic and technical excellence.

From first order to global reference 

If you were living in France sometime in the last century, you’d likely have a copy of the “Almanach des Postes” Post Office almanac in your house. Having ordered the calendars in bulk orders from Oberthur, French postmen brought them as small Christmas gifts for their public, supporting a warm local tradition of giving a gift in exchange for a gift. Departmentalized, illustrated with the latest techniques, moving from engravings to reproductions of large paintings then to photos, the postman’s almanac enjoyed phenomenal success throughout the country, and would sell millions of copies at the height of its popularity. By 1957 the company had 70% of the market, and the precious experience in organization of mass production of precise high-quality printing that would answer all wishes of their customers.

Now, a strong production base continues to be a must for the company. Its client list includes more than 70 central banks around the world, and in order to meet all their criteria, the printer has built its own ecosystem of operations, says Savare: “Oberthur Fiduciaire has acquired all the expertise and know-how required to produce banknotes, and has surrounded itself with suppliers who are geographically close to us.” This is not just a whim: all developments in the industry are patented and protected, the production processes must meet high standards and a printer and its partners must regularly undergo central banks’ accreditation process. Naturally, the French company has obtained all the necessary licenses, not just to be deemed fit, but also to prevent technologies and working methods from falling into the hands of counterfeiters – but before it had to face a difficult task of establishing itself as a trusted partner.

Becoming Oberthur Fiduciaire 

In the 20th century the security printing market was dominated by several companies, and Oberthur Fiduciaire wasn’t among them. One of the giants was the British De La Rue, which rose to stability thanks to printing stamps for the British Empire dependencies, and, later, producing banknotes for various countries. The second was the American Crane Currency, which began as an exclusive supplier of high-quality paper and eventually extended its offerings to banknote printing. Their ranks entailed enormous obligations: technologies were constantly changing, criminals were inventing new ways to counterfeit banknotes, and banks kept posing ever-increasing demands.

The constant need for technological development eventually made some banks abandon their own printing facilities and outsource orders to commercial printers. At the same time, Oberthur Fiduciaire, then in financial difficulties, opened its doors to a new chairman: Jean-Pierre Savare, a man with great managerial experience and a passion for technological innovation. Led by Savare, and thanks to his constant focus on keeping pace with progress and with the company’s clients, the French printer was able to enter the security printing market and take advantage of the window of opportunity. The company began to grow, earning itself a reputation as a modern and reliable supplier in the niche world of the cash printing business.

The journey into the era of new technologies was tedious for everyone – Crane Currency, for example, was struggling with the problems of organizing production and keeping up the pace: “The technology of a bank note has actually changed quite dramatically and quite significantly over the past 20 years,” told the company’s then-CEO Lanse Crane. “The cost of keeping up with that has also been quite significant.” The French printer understood this, too, but continued to invest in production and technology, while building up a base of devoted clients. Eventually, these efforts bore fruit in the form of new state-of-the-art production sites, the ECB authorization to print euro banknotes, and worldwide recognition, recently proven with the latest banknote series of the Central Bank of Oman. The banknotes won the 2022 Best New Banknote Series award, not least thanks to Oberthur’s latest technologies like Pulsar™ movement and color shift security thread, the reinforced post print varnish Ultra™ and strengthening agent Highlink™.

This, and other recent developments in the company’s life, such as the acquisition of Rolling Optics, marks a new era not only for Oberthur Fiduciaire, but for all banknote makers. The security printing world has transformed itself from simple printing works into enterprises that primary rely on fruits of intellect, rather than simple manual labor: “The market is changing… and Oberthur Fiduciaire is gradually transforming itself into a supplier of top-quality intellectual property. Our numerous patents are available under license to satisfy the needs of other papermakers or printers, but also to central banks which would like one or more of our innovative solutions,” Thomas Savare explains.

Counterfeiters can match size, color and even pattern, but they will never be able to reproduce banknotes in all their integrity and uniqueness – simply because the history of their design and technology relies on decades-long experience and proprietary know-hows. And as cash will stay with us for decades to come, Oberthur Fiduciaire is ready to serve as a mirror of the industry and meet its ever-changing demands: “As long as we have the drive to innovate and offer ever more effective products, we will play a major role in our industry,” believes the company’s CEO.

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