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Designing for peace of mind

26 October 2010

Intellectual property and intellectual capital are often misunderstood. All too often organisations file a patent application and think that that is all they need to do. But it is not just about patents and other formal IP such as trade marks, designs and copyright. A company’s value is contained in its wider intellectual capital, where know-how, branding, skills, policies and processes all have a role to play, as Jackie Maguire explains

Mark Getty, co-founder of Getty Investments LLC Group, and the grandson of oil magnate, J. Paul Getty, once wrote in an article entitled ‘Blood and Oil’ (The Economist March 4, 2000): “Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century. Look at the richest men a hundred years ago; they all made their money extracting natural resources or moving them around. All today’s richest men have made their money out of intellectual property.”

Whilst not everyone might agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, it is difficult to refute that, for a manufacturing or engineering business in today’s economy, protecting and commercialising designs and inventions is just as crucial as coming up with a good idea in the first place. And particularly in a downturn, when business is hard to come by, the last thing you want is someone stealing your branding, ideas and the future revenues that they could generate.

This principle is now starting to be understood more widely than it has been hitherto. IP registration is growing massively with the number of patents doubling every decade. Manufacturing is moving to emerging economies where IP is the key to value generation and economic growth; developing countries are now beginning to recognise the importance of IP, and some 80% of company value is now in intangible assets.

Intellectual property and intellectual capital are often misunderstood. All too often organisations file a patent application and think that that is all they need to do. When intellectual property is mentioned, people usually think of filing patents, and registering trade marks and designs. But it is not just about patents and other formal IP such as trade marks, designs and copyright. A company’s value is contained in its wider intellectual capital, where know-how, branding, skills, policies and processes all have a role to play.

The need to protect IP applies to both new and well-established companies. The engineering design business is dynamic and competitive, and managing a company in this industry is hard work. Starting up a new company or spin-off is exciting but a challenge in today’s environment and it is easy to overlook some of the fundamentals in the struggle for survival. Even those companies that take some steps to protect themselves need to ensure the protection is thorough and in every geographical area in which they operate, or they could find themselves in trouble.

The first step is to understand the value of the intellectual property and intellectual capital in the company; contrary to what some people might believe, it is possible to put a monetary value on this. Knowing the value of the company’s IP puts a manager in a strong position when looking for funding or a merger/acquisition path. The second is to ensure it is totally protected, and the third is to consider where to take it in the future – ie, commercialisation of the IP.

The value of IP protection
Absolute Robotics is an example of an organisation for which the value of IP protection has come sharply into focus. It was set up three years ago in Bedfordshire to develop a concept that upgrades standard industrial robots to make them suitable for advanced manufacturing and aerospace applications.

Standard industrial robots are widely used in manufacturing, with automotive leading the sector. However, the aircraft industry, among other types of business, has found it difficult to use robots in the construction process or for advanced manufacturing because their accuracy is compromised by the distortion and expansion of their joints due to temperature and stiffness related effects. Previous attempts to overcome the problem have usually resulted in expensive, customer-specific applications that suffer from one limitation or another.

Absolute Robotics set out to address these problems by developing a new measurement device that uses laser beams on the robot’s wrist and imaging sensors on the floor of the production cell to locate the position and orientation of its axes in absolute space. These measurements take place in real time and without interfering with the robot’s production cycle.
As the robot returns to the same programmed position, any expansion or distortion of the arms due to temperature, stiffness or other effects will result in a deflection of the laser light spots across the sensor surfaces, enabling the position and orientation of the robot’s arms to be determined absolutely and with very high accuracy.

This concept can be used to calibrate robots in real time under normal working conditions, over their entire working envelope, without disrupting productivity. It is not specific to robot type or application; any robot can be calibrated in real time without modification and networked to others working in the same or neighbouring cells. In essence, the robot becomes a manufacturing, as well as a quality assurance, tool that checks the quality of its own work in real time, to ensure that no mistakes are made or propagated down the line.

Absolute Robotics realised that it was necessary to ensure the protection of its intellectual property right from the beginning and called upon Coller IP Management to prepare and apply for the required patent applications on its behalf. Coller also helped the company to evaluate the search reports on the inventions to enable their distinctive and innovative features to be identified.

The concept is currently being evaluated and further developed by industrial automation specialist, INOS Automation GmbH, under a grant from the German Ministry of Industrial Research and Development.

As this example highlights, it is vital to understand the value of your intellectual capital and have a plan to protect it. Companies – and individuals – focus their flair, imagination, money and time on new inventions. It is well worth putting a little time, effort and money into ensuring that they, rather than a competitor, reap the rewards.

Jackie Maguire is chief executive officer, Coller IP Management


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