Metal Theft No More?

A copper earth strap, marked with Signature Materials's customized engraving. Image credit: Signature Materials 

The last decade has seen historic rises in metal prices, and inevitably this has led to an equally large rise in metal thefts.

Now, a UK company is attempting to lead a fight back against this costly crime. Signature Materials, along with Pryor Marking Technologies Ltd, have developed a simple yet effective method of marking metal so that it is much easier to trace and much harder to pass on illegally.

I recently caught up with David Arthur, Signature Materials Project Manager, to get his views on some of the current problems faced and how Signature Materials can help.

In your opinion, what are the current issues surrounding metal theft?

The continuing rises in the prices of copper and lead in particular are driving theft levels. One of the main areas where thefts are being suffered is copper used in electricity supply and distribution, railway and telecommunication cabling .

They seem to be the hot areas, and there seems to have been a decline during 2013 in the other area where metal theft was traditionally prevalent, namely the theft of lead roofing materials on churches and schools. Where theft occurs in these cases the disruption and on-costs incurred can be high. But metals theft is still very much a problem that the community is having to face.

Tinned copper wire with engraving. Image credit: Signature Materials 

How did Signature Materials get started?

The company was formed out of a professional body, The Institute Of Materials, Minerals And Mining (IOM3). IOM3 did some work for the Home Office, going back a number of years, initially looking for alternative materials for beer glasses because of injuries caused by “glassing”.

As a result of the success on that programme, the Home Office asked IOM to look at the increasing problem of metal theft. People in the electricity industry, transportation and telecoms along with the law enforcement agencies were all saying ‘we’ve got a problem, what can we do?’ Networking groups kicked ideas around and as a result we hit on the idea of the marking systems we now offer.

We started out looking at copper wire particularly used in transportation cable bundles with a trial through London Underground and the British Transport Police. This resulted in readable marks etched on to the surface of the copper wire, to deter theft by making it more difficult to pass on.

Could you briefly explain the marking process and what the benefits are compared to forensic analysis?

Signature Materials has got two different processes, but they both have the same result, just using a different technique. We engrave the surface of a material, , with a customisable signature the end user can specify, but typically what we put on is a postcode combined with a owners name, and perhaps a building reference number.

For example, we’ve been working with Electricity North West in England, marking copper found in sub-stations such as earthing tape which is regularly stolen because it’s not live.

We’ve been marking this using our portable machines in the field and we’ve put ‘ENWL’, so it shows the owner, the sub-station number, the postcode and then this thing called MARC, which links that particular piece of copper to an entry on our national register, a web based database.

So if the police stop somebody with a piece of metal marked by us, they can instantly track it back and check through our database to see if it’s been stolen.

So one advantage over forensic or DNA based solutions is that you don’t have to wait for analysis back, you can actually check there and then with the owner or with us.

You also have the potential issue with forensic techniques of cross contamination. With our method there is no chance of contamination, because we’re not actually putting any chemicals on the metal, its literally a physical engraving technique. That’s the key benefit really.

Marking an in-situ ENWL grid station in Manchester. Image credit: Signature Materials 

Where has this been applied so far and where do you see it being applied in the future?

There are two main strands of our business - one is wire based products, so we’ve done some trials on marking copper wire.

The other side is working within electricity distribution networks.We’ve marked a lot of substations to see if it has a major deterrent effect. We have also marked lead roofing on churches and other buildings in Northampton and Lincolnshire.

We’re only 1 year in as a business, but where we are looking at going is electricity distribution companies in the UK.

Typical warning sticker found at marked facilities. Image credit: Signature Materials 

It is certainly a noble cause, and the potential is there for this novel marking technique to significantly diminish metal theft in the future.

Let us know your opinion by commenting below -  how successful do you think this new technique will be in tackling metal theft? 


G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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