The San Francisco Mint is a high-tech manufacturing facility with a workforce that’s proud of what it turns out.
At least that’s the impression a visitor gets on a May 16 tour of the facility.
“People here know that these coins are going to be cherished,” said Paul Lewis, industrial manager.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary on May 15, the San Francisco Mint has focused since 1968 on producing proof coinage, with only a few exceptions.
“We make coins that people are going to have in their collections forever,” Lewis said.
That creates a lot of excitement and pride among those who work at the San Francisco Mint, he said.
It creates a culture of excellence.
Larry Eckerman, plant manager at the San Francisco Mint since 1999, has taken the facility on a lean manufacturing journey focusing on better quality, efficient processes and faster delivery of proof sets.
And all while ensuring that the proof coins are error free.
“We try to make it impossible to make an error,” Eckerman said. “Our prototype is a vision system that looks at a die once it is installed in a press and compares it with what is supposed to be there. If it doesn’t match, it locks the press out. It can’t be run.”
For collectors, that means no more mule coins. The obverse and reverse dies will not get mixed up as they are placed on the press.
Gone also are the days of placing the wrong coins in holders. The packaging system is now operated by robots that pick up the correct coins, put them in the correct orientation, enclose them in plastic and place them on a trolly. From there robots pack them in cartons, once again using a computerized visionary system that compares what is supposed to be in the carton with what is actually in the carton.
So how did it happen that some proof half dollar coins made it into the new Birth Sets? It was human error.
As the sets were being assembled, more clad proof half dollars were needed, Eckerman said. Instead of going to the vault where they were kept, someone with good intentions went to the production area where proof half dollars were being made. Only problem was these were silver proof half dollars, not clad proof half dollars. Hence the mixup.
“We have made that mistake-proof now,” Eckerman said.
Efficiency at the facility has improved dramatically under Eckerman’s leadership. When he started at the Mint in 1999 it took 1,434 hours to complete one “lens” or set package. Today, it takes less than 30 hours.
It took looking at each stage of coin and set production, Eckerman said. What they discovered was that it took only about five hours to create the finished product. So where did all the other hours come from.
“Most of the time was material sitting in inventory,” he said. “We would make pennies and put them in inventory, make nickels and put them in inventory.”
Once all the coins that would be needed were minted, then they would be pulled out of storage and the set assembly would begin.
Now, the 20 presses may be making 14 different coins at one time. By starting all of the coins needed for each “lens” or set package at the same time there is a steady feed of coins.
“As the drum beats, you fill it,” Eckerman said.
The time and money spent should result in a better product, he said.
“We look at what the customer is willing to pay for,” said production manager David Jacobs. “Do they want to pay for storage? No. A fine finish? Yes.”