Global Material Handling System Integrators
 
 

Patents in the Material Handling Industry

 
United States Patent and Trademark Office logoOver the last 10 years or so, I have learned about the trials and tribulations of filing patents in the material handling and industrial automation industries. The subject matter has been across the board from electronic picking devices to robotic AS/RS. Fortunately, we have had very talented patent attorneys assisting us throughout each process, but whether you have a patent attorney or are going it alone, the basic steps to obtaining a patent remain the same.  Below is an overview of that process. Round one (1) is to wait approximately two years while the patent office works through the backlog. Just about the time you have forgotten about the patent application, you get your first response from the patent office. Unfortunately it is pretty much a rule that no matter what you claim on your initial filing, it will come back completely rejected with reference patents that often have little to do with your claims. It seems like this is the first step of culling out any novice inventors to find out if they really have the persistence and financial means to continue on. Round two (2) begins with our patent attorney gracefully explaining the novel features and differences from the referenced patents. During this round, it seems like the patent examiner will study the claims a little more carefully but inevitably will still come back with the majority of the claims rejected. (Note: from here on out each communication step takes about 6 to 9 months.) For round three (3) it is time to go meet with the examiner in Washington DC and explain/emphasize the novel merits of our claims. With the face-to-face meeting, the examiner more fully understands the invention but can make no promises until additional research is performed. Approximately 6 months later, the response comes back from the examiner again rejecting many of the claims but offering some suggestions on what could be approved and how to go about refining the claims so they might be accepted. Round (4) involves our patent attorney's doing some fine word-smithing to keep the claims as broad as possible while meeting the intent of the patent examiner. The ball then gets passed between the examiner and the patent attorney several times until all parties are satisfied with the language. Finally, 4 to 6 years later and several thousands of dollars in attorney fees, the patent is finally issued. Needless to say, obtaining a patent can be a daunting process, but Bastian Material Handling has been fortunate enough to obtain several patents over the years.  Just a few of our industrial automation patents include:
  •  Robotic Automated Storage and Retrieval System – Mixed Pallet Build System
  • Vertical Spiral Multilevel Sorter and Merge Conveyor for Three Dimensional Automated Pick Module
  • Three-Dimensional Automated Pick Module
  • Wireless directed inventory systemASAP Automation Pick to Display (PTD) Device
  • Inventory system with image display
  • Inventory system with barcode display
Two clients that have made great use of our PTD devices, include AT&T and Prime Distribution Services.  Both used ASAP Automation PTD devices with images to increase productivity and throughput of their warehouses and/or distribution centers. Although we have had successes in obtaining multiple patents in the material handling and industrial automation industries, I really don't see how the majority of inventors without good legal services and substantial funds could ever expect to get a patent in the U.S. today.  Although patents are only one dimension of the competitive landscape, innovation is critical to the long term success of our industry. I certainly understand that there has to be due diligence and intellectual property protection for those patents that have been filed, but our patent system is too slow and de-motivating to creative inventors. One recommendation would be to begin the examiner face-to-face discussions immediately using communication tools like Skype, WebEx, or an equivalent.  These technologies are quick, inexpensive, and efficient for conveying ideas, and no one even has to leave their office. It is time to take the politics out of patents and streamline the application process.

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