Spotting on silver American Eagles remains a challenge

Finding a solution among goals for U.S. Mint quality control chief
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Published : 12/06/12
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During her less than 18 months as the U.S. Mint’s quality division chief, Stacy Kelley-Scherer has focused her attention on a problem that has plagued the American Eagle silver bullion coin program almost since its 1986 inception — spots.
 
So far, a solution that prevents spotting from occurring has eluded Mint officials.
 
As quality division chief assigned within the U.S. Mint’s manufacturing department, Kelley-Scherer is responsible for all of the quality control issues related to coin design, equipment and materials procurement, sales and marketing, manufacturing, distribution of finished product and customer returns. Spotting is just one problem that she has had to address, and it is a longstanding one.
 
Each year of the program, collectors and dealers of the American Eagle silver dollars have reported spots or blotches on the obverse and reverse, on all finishes — bullion, Proof and Uncirculated — and on coins from all Mints involved.
 
The spotting is random and can appear as a single spot, multiple spots crossing the field and devices, or in large blotches or patches consuming significant portions of a coin’s designs.
 
Examples of silver American Eagles illustrated with this article, all of which were submitted for certification and encapsulation by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., are typical.
 
Scattered spots and blotches are clearly evident on the obverse of the illustrated 2012 American Eagle silver bullion coin, while the reverse is devoid of such detracting surface imperfections.
 
The 1996 coin, however, is an example of massive spotting and blotching problems that attacked most of the surfaces of the obverse and reverse from the rim inward.
 
Besides being unsightly, the spotting translates to diminished value on the secondary market, especially among collectors seeking coins for their numismatic value rather than for their bullion value.
 
The Mint can lose revenue as well. A collector receiving a spotted silver American Eagle — especially a Proof or Uncirculated numismatic version — will likely return the coin to the Mint for a spot-free replacement.
 
Spotted American Eagles
 
Since the program’s inauguration in 1986, production of silver American Eagles has been distributed, depending on the calendar year and version, between three production facilities — the Philadelphia, West Point and San Francisco Mints.
 
In 2001, production of all versions of the silver American Eagle was restricted to the West Point Mint. After that, except for special issues, the West Point facility became the primary producer of American Eagle silver dollar production.
 
In May 2011, however, to meet investor demand, the San Francisco Mint resumed production of the American Eagle silver bullion coins to augment the primary output at the West Point Mint.
 
With the spotting issue involving silver American Eagles, Kelley-Scherer says all components of the production process are being addressed.
 
Among the things under scrutiny are the quality of the universal planchets from which all silver American Eagles are produced; concentrations of coin cleaning and brightening solutions used on the planchets; rinses used on the planchets; and drying time and temperatures for planchets, among other factors.
 
Inability to remedy the spotting problem, especially with the numismatic issues, translates into continued customer product returns, Kelley-Scherer said.
 
All factors are being addressed for “mistake-proofing,” in an attempt to identify and correct possible causes and thereby eliminate detracting results before they occur, Kelley-Scherer said.
 
Design, production issues
 
As quality division chief, Kelley-Scherer also finds herself tackling the other top concerns and complaints that collectors and other U.S. Mint customers have registered — packaging problems that have resulted in coins being ejected from improperly fitting plastic capsules, and scratches on plastic lenses for numismatic coin sets.
 
Design problems can translate into production problems. Kelley-Scherer noted issues with the Proof 2012 National Infantry Museum commemorative silver dollars as well as the September 11 silver medals.
 
The design of the Infantry silver dollar contributed to the potential for creating a “halo effect” in the fields, she said. The Mint also experienced problems associated with the copper in the 90 percent silver, 10 percent copper planchets trying to flow to the surface during striking, she said.
 
It is best that problems of these types be addressed early in the process so there’s no setup for failure once full production begins, she said.
 
Similar problems occurred with the background design for the September 11 silver medals.
 
In various programs, Kelley-Scherer said, some problems increase the need to polish dies more often, thus shortening die life and contributing to reduced quality on the finished product.
 
Addressing all issues that could affect a product at the beginning and examining possible quality control issues at each respective interim step will help Mint officials better predict the quality of the end product and tweak what’s necessary at each step, she said.
 
Packaging problems, returns
 
Packaging problems — among them capsules opening, allowing coins to wander inside the boxes, for the five-coin 2011 Silver American Eagle 25th Anniversary set — prompted Kelley-Scherer to direct a closer look at new product introduction and procurement procedures.
 
Kelley-Scherer said problems with that 2011 set and its packaging was a driving force behind the Mint re-examining its procurement contracts and packaging specifications.
 
A new product introduction process implemented for 2013 employs a cross-functional team of Mint employees from different disciplines to help streamline procedures, she said. All information is being examined by the team, in conjunction with outside suppliers and vendors, to ensure that the materials provided at the front end will result in a quality packaged product, she said.
 
The packaged products are shipped in specific quantities per shipping container depending on the product and delivered to the U.S. Mint’s contracted order fulfillment center, Pitney-Bowes Government Solutions in Plainfield, Ind., for ultimate individual shipping to customers.
 
Kelley-Scherer said that since she joined the Mint, at least seven different procurement contracts have been modified and redesigned to ensure that product samples meet engineering specifications and tolerances before production of any of the components of the packaging begins.
 
Multiple plastic capsules and lenses with different dimensions are procured by the Mint for various numismatic products, Kelley-Scherer said.
 
Each of these coin containers has different specifications and tolerances, Kelley-Scherer said. 
The outside diameter of a coin capsule could be at the upper range of the specified tolerances and still be acceptable, she said. 
 
A problem can arise when the opening in the box or other packaging into which the capsule is to be inserted is within specifications, but is still too small to secure the encapsulated coin in place. With insertion of an encapsulated coin, whether manually or robotically, a risk exists that the rim of the opening could be compromised — resultant bits of chaff thus would be allowed to float freely about inside the box, creating an unsightly environment, she said. In addition, a too small opening could exert too much pressure on the capsule, possibly springing it open, allowing the coin and possibly the capsule lid to float freely within the box. 
 
The opposite scenario, of a larger opening than required for the capsule, could allow the encapsulated coin to fall out of its slot, she said.
 
Kelley-Scherer said some plastic capsules are configured to require a coin to be placed, usually robotically, into the bottom capsule, with the outer lip or flange of the capsule’s top piece fitting over the outside of the bottom piece’s flange.
 
The Mint also uses some capsule types where the flange of the top fits within the diameter of the bottom piece of the capsule, Kelley-Scherer said. This requires the coin to be properly centered within the bottom piece of the capsule so the top piece can be properly accommodated, she said. When this style of capsule is used, proper alignment is detected by robotic sensors, she said.
 
The Mint’s quality teams also are examining the cardboard inserts used for annual numismatic products such as Proof sets in their various configurations, to ensure the coins of the proper diameter and denomination are inserted into the correct position, she said.
 
Kelley-Scherer said Mint officials are also trying to rectify the causes of scratching of plastic lenses for the annual sets and other similar packaging, a problem that has resulted in a significant number of product returns.
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