Business

Made of money: The Royal Mint where cash is banned

  • 24 July 2013
  • From the section Business

The long-serving, skilled staff who work at the "hot end" of the Royal Mint have an enviable job - they literally have money to burn.

Old, damaged or rejected coins are among the materials thrown into a roaring furnace by workers - some employed here for nearly 40 years - on eight-hour shifts, night and day.

Their job is to make money.

Melting down metal in the hot end is the start of the process that results in five billion coins being produced at this site in Llantrisant, south Wales, every year.

Despite churning out currency for the UK and around the world, one thing you will not find in the pockets and purses of staff at the mint is their own cash.

Like a chef without an appetite or an oil worker without a car, staff here do not sample their own produce.

Card machine at Royal Mint
Workers must load money on to their staff card to use in the canteen

Ready money

There is tight security throughout the complex, including patrols by military police. This extends to a complete ban on any coins being brought on to the site, making it one of the most unusual cashless workplaces.

Staff and visitors can leave coins in small lockers in the reception area. If they want to buy a cup of tea or a sandwich during the day, they must load up a staff card at a credit machine before they go through security at the start of their working day.

The canteen inside is cash-free, only accepting workers' cards to pay for their lunch.

It all works quickly and efficiently, with hardly a queue during the lunch hour for the 850 staff. So perhaps the mint itself is proving that workplaces, and society as a whole, could do without notes and coins

But Kevin Clancy, director of the Royal Mint Museum, argues that, more widely, coins have an enduring appeal and will stay for some time yet. He says they are flexible, convenient, and have hardly changed for centuries.

"There still seems to be a fondness for coinage and the portable aspect of money," he says, surrounded by displays of currency past and present. "Even the most modern economies and cultures in the world still have a strong attachment to notes and coins.

"There is something surprisingly universal in the 2,500 years that money has been around. The Romans did not carry around cartwheels.

"Cash is part of how we live our lives. It has not changed very much because it works well."

However, the cost of making these coins has been on the rise, because of the price of copper. Consequently, new 5p and 10p pieces have been made from steel and coated with a layer of nickel since January 2012 instead of using a copper-nickel alloy.

Concerns have been raised among medical researchers that this leaves some people with nickel allergies exposed to greater risks. The mint denies there is a greater public health risk from the new coins.

Cash is king

Cash remains the most popular form of payment in UK shops, according to analysis by the British Retail Consortium of 10 billion payments made in 2012.

Coin blanks
Some 20,000 blank coins are cut every minute by an single machine

It was used in 54% of transactions, although other forms of payment are on the rise.

The popularity of coins will be welcome news at the Royal Mint, which is one of the largest employers in the region. Previously housed in the Tower of London for about 500 years, it has been minting coins in south Wales since around the time of decimalisation.

There are estimated to be 28.9 billion UK coins in circulation, as of the end of March, with a total face value of £3.9bn - all of which were manufactured at the Royal Mint.

The changing composition of a 10p coin

The process has become so efficient that coins and blanks produced in the complex are exported around the world. The Royal Mint meets about 15% of global demand for coins.

The flags of many of these countries are displayed around the vast factory floor where the blanks are poured into the top of precision machines and then struck with images of monarchs and denominations.

The noise it creates across the building means earplugs are needed for everyone involved, many of whom have worked here for decades.

Regular coins are struck once, with 70 tonnes of force. Commemorative coins can be struck as many as 30 times for a deeper imprint.

Silver service

Among those commemorative coins is the silver penny. It is designed as a gift for newborn babies, following the tradition of commemorating a baby's birth by crossing the child's palm with silver - 2,013 of these coins are being given to the parents of children born on the same day as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's first child.

Commemorative silver pennies

The emphasis is on quality, so when these - and other - coins are struck, they fall into a small tray. They are inspected, using a magnifying eyepiece, before being released into a crate. As a result, if blemishes are discovered, then the whole day's work does not have to be thrown out.

This attention to detail and the skills involved mean that it is not just coins that are struck on this site.

The Royal Mint has been making military campaign medals since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Last year, under even tighter security and secrecy, it manufactured the gold, silver and bronze medals for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Yet coins remain its regular business. The UK Treasury is the sole owner of the Royal Mint, but although it controls the manufacture of coins, it cannot control exactly how they will be spent.

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