Patenting a new idea or solution is like establishing a monopoly on it. Countries protect inventors’ ideas even as they reveal the innovation’s details in the patent registry. Today, Siemens has more than 56,000 patents and is high in the ranking of companies holding the greatest number of patents in Europe, Germany (with its own patent authority) and the U.S.
Protecting intellectual property (IP) is the main motivation for undertaking the process and expense of registering inventions. Sometimes, though, organizations prefer to keep their innovations secret (think of military weapons, or the formula for Coke) and they don’t wish to apply for a patent, which exposes the algorithm, formula, etc. to anyone interested in looking it up.
Three very productive inventors here at SPLM (Tecnomatix), Lisandro Embon, Moshe Hazan and Rahav Madvil, have registered, amongst them, eight pending patents for the company. It’s inspiring and instructive to hear their description of the road that has led towards patenting their ideas.
So there you are, hammering away on a project (or one of several that you’re multi-tasking), and you’re hitting up against a roadblock - some engineering or mathematical conundrum that’s interfering with a smooth path to get the thing working. It may even be keeping you up nights, until finally, you arrive at a way to solve it, or at least somehow get around it. Maybe you had a “Eureka” moment, or perhaps you applied a bit of untraditional thinking, converted the problem to a mathematical model (like a DAG - Direct Acyclic Graph or Set Theory).
You may have collaborated with other good minds to find a breakthrough. Often, a larger number of participants is a sign that a project is inherently very interesting. And along the way, someone, maybe you, has noticed that your solution has taken a novel turn. And now there’s some curiosity, mixed with a bit of ambition: Maybe this is the first time anyone came up with this solution! And perhaps we could patent our new idea on behalf of the company.
Actually, here at Siemens PLM, the above scenario is less typical. More often, the inventors here have thought in terms of technologies that we yet have to work with directly, for example, robotics and energy efficiency. And they tend to look ahead, imagining solutions for situations that may yet occur, and that way stake a claim for Siemens in future areas of development. Then with the patent in hand, the company may decide to leverage its ownership either for competitive exclusivity, or by licensing the rights to its IP, as long as the patent remains in force (in some cases up to 20 years).
Siemens’ Operational Patent Committee (OPC) decides which employee suggestions will be registered. This body examines each idea to assess if it’s interesting, business worthy, practical and do-able, worth the effort and expense to register it as ours, or perhaps conclude that it’s not as original as its promoters assumed. The inventors engage in an iterative correspondence with the committee until it determines whether to apply for a patent. After OPC approval, company lawyers enter the scene, and then begins the “ping pong” with the inventors as they and the lawyers hone the language that will protect the company’s rights to the innovation. In fact, there are two patent lists that we apply to simultaneously – one for the inventions, and one for the inventors (who may be people and organizations).
Though most of our patents are future-looking, they do bring the company immediate benefits. They enhance our innovation metric in the eyes of customers, analysts and impress a market that values multiple patents as a sign of being robust.
Often, it’s only universities and research centers that explore new advanced manufacturing technologies. Through experimentation and lab trials they are uncovering new methods, whereas most market-based industries are still in conservative mode. But at Siemens the push to innovation is crucial, so the patent inventors here are encouraged to pursue areas not necessarily within our areas of routine development. Lately, this includes focusing on autonomous robots and robots that communicate between themselves. By understanding the great promise these developments may hold, there is support for efforts to seek patents for innovative solutions that may reach maturity only several years from now. It’s worth noting that Siemens recognizes and rewards its patent inventors with monetary bonuses.
SPLM employees considering applying for a patent have an advantage. Earlier this year, Rafi Blumenfeld (CTO for Manufacturing Engineering Solutions) was appointed as a member of the OPC.
Now, engineers in the organization can sound out their innovative ideas in preliminary discussions with Rafi, and then draft their applications to the OPC with his advice. And once the application reaches the committee, the members often consult with Rafi who can provide clear explanations and demonstrate the idea’s feasibility and innovation.
Though employees who patent solutions need to dedicate working time for this activity, our CEO Zvi Feuer is still very pleased. He appreciates the significant uptick in the number of our patents, since this demonstrates that we are extremely into innovation. It also elevates our group’s prestige within the Siemens organization, as compared to others that published fewer inventions this year.
The importance of patents to businesses can be illustrated by two stories. In the recent Apple-Samsung patent war, the two sides’ absolute unyieldingness forced both to compromise. Leading to the interesting anomaly of improved competitive positions for each corporation. On the other hand, nearly 35 years ago the Kodak tragedy began to unfold, when management rejected the opportunity to patent its in-house discoveries in digital photography. In glum hindsight, had Kodak gone ahead with that patent, not only would the corporation still be around today, their net worth would probably top that of many small to midsize nation-states. Instead, that fateful decision to stay away from the patent office led to the eventual, shall we say, shuttering of the American photo giant, as digital photography has totally eclipsed film emulsion cameras. In today’s business world, ‘anti-innovation’ is like a death wish, while aggressive future-looking development, as disruptive as it can get, seems to vitalize companies and increase their market hold.
And as if anybody had any doubts about how critical it is to push for innovation, the very first Siemens CEO, Werner von Siemens himself, attributed the success of his factories to the inventions he introduced to improve quality, speed and productivity.