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Making Benjamins by the millions

At the Western Currency Facility, the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing makes millions of dollars worth of $100 bills every day. CNET Road Trip 2014 got hands-on with the money.

At the Western Currency Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, two Bureau of Engraving and Printing technicians hold up sheets of newly-printed $100 bills. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

FORT WORTH, Texas -- I've got $1.6 million in my hands, and it's hot.

But this 37-pound "cash pack" -- a total of 16,000 brand-new $100 bills -- isn't stolen. It's actually hot, having just seconds earlier emerged from a shrink-wrapping machine that had heated the plastic wrap to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Welcome to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing's Western Currency Facility, one of two plants -- the other is in Washington, D.C. -- where the US Treasury Department prints paper money. It's the kind of place where you can look up and see $320 million stacked in a back corner of what in most ways looks like an everyday printing facility.

It's where employees treat "straps" of 100 hundreds ($10,000), "bundles" of 10 straps ($100,000), "bricks" of four bundles ($400,000), cash packs of four bundles ($1.6 million), and "skids" of 40 cash packs ($64 million) with the same outward emotion and excitement you might expect if they were making pamphlets.

But that lack of visible excitement belies the pride workers here feel in their work. This is, in many ways, a family business. As Charlene Williams, the Western Currency Facility's plant manager, put it, people work here for generations, passing their expertise from father to daughter, mother to son, and brother to sister, year after year. "I can't tell you," Williams said, "the pride that exists out here on the floor."

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to this city of 778,000 in northeast Texas to see how the newest $100 bills, in circulation since October, 2013, are made, one 32-bill sheet at a time. The redesigned notes have new anti-counterfeiting features like a color-changing bell in an inkwell and a blue 3D security ribbon with images of 100s and bells.

Given that $100 bills are in many ways the currency of the world, this is definitely no ordinary printing plant. And though the Fort Worth facility also turns out twenties, tens, fives, and ones -- and has just begun an all-new process that generates 50-sheet $1 bills -- my visit was all about the Benjamins.

Each slot in this carousel holds a 'bundle' of $100 bills, each worth $100,000. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

During fiscal 2014, which ends September 30, 2014, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing will make a total of 6 billion notes of all denominations worth $123.6 billion. Here at the 750,000-square-foot Fort Worth facility, which opened in 1991, and which has 650 full-time and 250 contract employees, the agency will turn out 4 billion notes, worth $97.1 billion. Every day, $408 million in all denominations -- $17 million an hour -- comes off the presses. For the uninitiated, it's a stunning experience.

Looking at the front of the hot cash pack, I noticed it had a label indicating it was destined for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco -- where CNET's offices are located. With a straight face, I mentioned to Kevin Lund, a Bureau of Engraving and Printing employee, that I would soon be returning to San Francisco and I could deliver the money myself. For a second, Lund looked confused. Then, getting my joke, he turned it around on me. "Tell you what," Lund said, nodding at the heavily-secured exit nearby, "if you can it out the door, it's all yours."

Click here for a full photo gallery of the $100 bill production process.