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Behind the scenes with the next-gen $100 bill

Road Trip 2010: It's been just two months since the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing introduced the brand-new $100 bill. CNET's Daniel Terdiman got a chance to see every step of the bills' production process.

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got behind-the-scenes at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing's Washington, D.C., production line of the brand-new, next-generation $100 bill. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WASHINGTON--I'm staring at $38.4 million in cash, and it's hard not to drool.

I'm here at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which, as is probably best described by its official Web site, is America's "money factory."

More specifically, this is where the U.S. Treasury Department prints its paper money, and as part of Road Trip 2010, I've come here to see how the bureau makes the brand-new, next-generation $100 bill. The bureau's mission is emblazoned in red, white, and blue neon on a wall near where I came in: "We make money the old fashioned way, we PRINT it."

But jumping ahead of that process a little bit, I'll say it again: At the end of my behind-the-scenes tour, I've come face to face with two giant piles, or "skids" of perfect, clean, crisp $100s, all packaged up and ready to be shipped out, exactly 384,000 of them, and I can only shake my head and think, "what if."

That's getting ahead of myself though.

Although the bureau prints each of America's paper denominations, my tour is of the production process for the new $100, partly because it's the most advanced bill the country has ever printed, and mainly because the bureau is still in publicity mode for it. The new bill was unveiled officially on April 21.

My tour began in what is called "Offset." This, explained Offset supervisor James Sutherland, is where background color is printed on what until then had been blank sheets of the special paper the bureau uses for all our currency. That paper comes delivered with embedded purple anti-counterfeiting strips, and as well as the little colored security fibers that set our money apart, but nothing else.

Once Offset has printed the first rounds of background colors, the future $100 bills--which start as sheets of 32 bills--four across, eight down--are stacked up and set aside to dry for 72 hours. It seems a little weird to me that they dry in these large stacks, but that's how it works. After every stage in the printing process, the sheets must dry for 72 hours. And then it's on to the next stage.

We moved on to what is known as "intaglio," the section where the many elements of the new $100--the lettering, the back, the face, the seals, and more--are added.

This is also where many of the additional security--read: anti-counterfeiting--features are added. Here, that means specialty inks and color-shifting inks. I was asked not to say more, as a security precaution.

First up is the printing of the back of the bill. This is pretty straightforward, and when I come in, I talk to assistant supervisor Bob Smith, who explains what's going on. One interesting part of the process is the printing and examination of the so-called "smear sheet," which looks like a sheet of 32 $100 backs, dipped entirely in green ink. A smear sheet is printed once every 8,000 sheets or so.

A smear sheet, which is used so that printers can examine a run in order to see if anything is missing from the print. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The smear sheet, said Smith, is used by the printers as a way to see if everything in a run has been printed where it's supposed to be. On every sheet, the note's many authentication patterns are supposed to be in precise places, and by looking at the smear sheet, he added, the printers are able to ensure that that is the case.

But there's also automatic examination going on, Smith said. Built into the printing presses are inspection sensors that scan each sheet as it goes through, looking for defects, in a bid to "reduce spoilage." Those that the machine rejects are automatically separated "from the good work." All told, he added, about 85 percent to 90 percent of the sheets that come off the printer are deemed defect-free.

If, however, a defect is found--perhaps it's missing some print, is over-inked, under-inked, too lightly printed, or has smudges--the sheet isn't destroyed. Instead, if enough of it is salvageable, the good bills will be set aside and used as what are known as "star sheets." But more on that later.

Smith said that the bureau's printing presses have a general capacity of about 10,000 sheets an hour, but that for the new $100 bill, they're producing about 20 percent less, or about 8,000 sheets an hour. And that's because they're still in the earliest stages of the bill's production. Eventually, Smith suggested, the number will rise to normal production levels.

We've now moved on to faces, and here, too, printers will produce smear sheets, again to determine if the security features are properly positioned on each new print load.

A print load is five piles of 888 sheets, for a total of 4,440 sheets or $14.2 million.

Essentially, though, the process here is the same as in the back-printing section: print the new elements, and then let the loads dry for 72 hours.

Then it's on to the examination area. Here, explained assistant acting foreman Ron Perkins, loads of 15,000 sheets arrive and must be inspected to ensure they are defect-free.

This, of course, is not manual work. Instead, the sheets are fed into an examination machine, which scans each 32-bill sheet, one at a time looking for any inconsistency--again, under-inking, over-inking, smudges, and so on. If defects are found, the offending sheets are separated and don't get sent on any further in the production process.

The sheets are fed into the machine, where a stream of air lifts them individually, and a vacuum picks them up so they can be guided along a series of bearings. A camera takes a picture of the front of the sheets, which then hit "the knives," where the tops and bottoms get about half an inch of excess paper trimmed off. Then the sheets execute a nifty maneuver where they are flipped over in a 90-degree turn, without creasing them in any way. Then a second camera takes a picture of the back of the sheets before sending them to a second set of knives, where the sides are trimmed. Here, as well, the sheets are cut in half, down the middle, splitting sheets that were four bills by eight into two sheets of two bills by eight.

And then one more camera, which takes a final picture that is used to ensure that the front side of the bills matches the back, and that they are not off-center to each other.

After passing under the third camera, the sheets are sent to a separation point. The "good work" go up a ramp, and the defects go straight through, ending up in a bin appropriately marked "mutts."

The mutts are not saved. Rather, they are pulled aside, accounted for, and then destroyed.

At this point, Perkins explained, the printing process is basically done, and the sheets of 16 bills are sent to their final area--known as Cope-pack.

All around the printing sections of the bureau are signs that read, "2 person rule in effect at all times," meaning nobody can be in the area alone. Clearly, they take security very seriously here.

In Cope-pack--which stands for Currency over Printing Equipment and Packaging--the last step in the bills' production is to add the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve seals and the serial numbers.

The hundreds come in, still in 16-bill sheets, and go through one final press, where those seals and the serial numbers are added. Then, they emerge, in stacks of 100 sheets of "16 subject."

At this point, there's still one more set of knives to come. The sheets slide along a belt first that does a set of horizontal cuts, dividing the two bill by eight bill sheets into single two-bill sheets, and then a vertical cut splits them into piles of 100 individual $100 notes (see video above).

This brick contains 4,000 $100 bills, or $400,000. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Those come off the machine, and end up in the hands of an examiner, who manually flips through them, $10,000 at a time, looking for any defects that have escaped the automatic systems. These are the crispest, cleanest bills you can imagine, perfectly aligned, and a pleasure to look at.

If even a single defect is discovered here, the entire stack of a hundred notes is destroyed, and is replaced by pre-printed stacks of a hundred star notes, using the notes that were pulled aside much earlier in the process.

Then, 10 packs of the hundred notes, each with a paper band around it denoting that it amounts to $10,000, are put together in what's known as a bundle, or $100,000. Four of these are combined, making a brick, which equals $400,000.

And then 24 bricks are put together in the "skids." They're put on palettes and readied for shipping.

And here, at the end, is where I find myself face-to-face with 384 bricks. Or $38.4 million.

But no, I didn't get any samples.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.