20 March 2012

Product development advice

Getting good advice on developing a product, making a prototype and so on is hard to get.

The British Library has a regular programme of workshops which include "Product development clinics" by Bob Lindsey, with the next ones on the 3 and 12 April, and "What next for your invention ? Plan, prototype or protect ?" by Bang Creations, with the next one on the 5 April.

I have many one-hour meetings with inventors and designs to discuss their intellectual property and business plans. It helps a lot if the person sitting opposite me is an engineer, but they tend to lack skills in marketing. Or they might know a lot about finance and marketing, and have no idea how to protect their idea or the importance of building and refining a prototype.

These workshops, and the others on our regularly updated programme, help to fill in those gaps.

In addition, our free advice meetings can be booked on our web page. These can include business ideas where there is no hope of a patent.

16 March 2012

Golf ball cleaner inventions

I came across a golf ball cleaner device the other day when walking across a golf course. Paula explained to us what it was as we approached, and as we looked at it I saw on its side that it was patented. None of us had a camera to take a picture of it, though !

There was PAT. NO. 2807037 and the words Par Aide. This patent was applied for in 1955 by Par Aide Products Company, of St Paul, Minnesota. The title was Golf ball cleaner having a tank with scrubbing means therein. Below is the main drawing.

Golf ball cleaner patent image

It works by pulling up a handle, inserting the golf ball in the receptacle below the handle, and then depressing the handle. This makes the ball go down in a spiral fashion past, as the drawing shows, brushes and (as we could hear) into water. The spiral ensures that the entire ball is cleaned.

I had no idea such devices existed. One way to find more patents on the same subject is to ask for the "citing documents", later patents where the patent examiner cited the Par Aide patent as relevant. Eight, between 1965 and 2003, are cited against it.

Another way is to check the classification, which is for devices for cleaning balls. The Espacenet database lists 287 US patent documents in that class. And that is just on that topic, and mainly post 1920: many novices have no idea how many patents there are.

As for Par Aide, they are still around, and the database lists 10 US patent documents by them. This was their first invention.

 Besides the interest for industrial history generally, these documents would be a useful contributuon to a history of the company. 

13 March 2012

Twin Creeks Technologies' invention for halving the cost of solar cells

The MIT Technology Review published today an interesting article about Twin Creeks Technologies, a startup company that has an invention that they claim halves the cost of silicon solar cells.

The company's CEO Siva Sivaram has had a pilot plant built in Mississippi. Less silicon is needed and the manufacturing equipment is cheaper. He claims that the company can produce solar cells for about 40 cents per watt, half the present cheapest price. The company has raised $93 million in venture capital.

The usual way to make silicon wafers is cutting blocks of silicon into 200-micrometer-thick wafers. This means that half the silicon is wasted. This thickness is used not because it is needed to produce the power, but because thinner wafers are too brittle and would easily break in the manufacturing process. A thickness of 20 or 30 micrometers would work as well. 

Twin Creeks' technology consists of applying a thin layer of metal to the silicon, using a huge machine illustrated in the article. The use of wire saws and other equipment is also reduced. Crucially, perhaps, the technology can be added to existing production lines. The company wants to sell the equipment, not make solar cells.

What is particularly interesting about the article is that is describes the company as "a startup that has been operating in secret until today". Not that secret, I think -- their World patent application Method to form a photovoltaic cell comprising a thin lamina was published in August 2009.

Thanks to my colleague Peter Gibbs who drew my attention to the article.

12 March 2012

Sara Blakely and her Spanx® underwear invention

Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx® underwear, has quickly become a dollar billionaire -- and much of it is due to her smart use of intellectual property.

The Spanx website is fun and colourful and personal -- things I often suggest to inventors for publicising their products. Having myself grown up in the USA I immediately recognise the razmatazz. The site tells a story, and it's a good one as well.

Blakely was a sales trainer by day and a stand-up comedian at night. She dreaded wearing pantyhose as she didn't feel feminine enough in them. She researched patents to see what solutions had been devised so that you looked slimmer and didn't make it obvious that you were wearing something underneath. She then went round the attorneys, who were apparently incredulous, and decided to write the patent herself, although she did get a lawyer to write the monopoly claims.

Equally incredulous were the mill owners in North Carolina who she wanted to work with her to make the idea work. One man changed his mind after talking to his two daughters who didn't think the idea was crazy after all. It took a year to make the prototype, as she wouldn't be happy until certain that the design was comfortable to wear.

She also worked on a trade mark, and as she liked the k sounds in the Kodak and Coca Cola trade marks, and suddenly thought of Spanks, which was changed at the last minute to Spanx to make it easier to register. It was a fun name for a -- well, fun product. The packaging was designed by buying ten hosiery products and spreading the packaging across the floor. If the same thing was in all of them, it must be legal so in it went. Bright red packaging with cartoon-like images of three women wearing the product went on the front, and at the last minute a strapline was added: "Don't worry, we've got your butt covered !" Mum loved it all, apparently.

Years of relentless marketing followed, and then success. Below is the main drawing from the original patent document -- drawn by her mother and modelled by herself, she tells us. The title is A pantyhose undergarment and method for manufacturing.

Sara Blakely pantyhose patent image
Basically the design squeezes the wearer and is footless, which is apparently vital to make it work, to give a "smooth, tight appearance when worn under clothing, without causing the user to suffer discomfort." A couple of years later there was what is presumably a refinement, Two-ply body smoothing undergarment, with Jadideah Luckham as co-inventor. These are the World patent applications.

So what did she get right ? A background in sales and comedy certainly didn't hurt, and I'm sure Blakely would be the first to say that she had a steep learning curve for a long time. She did have a good product (maybe great, I can't say I've tried it...) which met a genuine need in a large market, and surrounded it with patent and trade mark protection (she even registered her own name).

To me perhaps her best strategy was the relaxed, fun approach taken in the marketing. That, and the asset that she cared passionately about producing something that would make a difference to people's lives. Maybe not ground shaking, but users obviously appreciate it, and she hasn't done too badly herself out of it.

Blakely -- OK, Sara -- is all over Youtube, as in the delicious clip of Americana shown below.



07 March 2012

Voice recognition in Apple's 4G phones

Apple has been advertising on TV its new 4G phones with users asking questions like "will I need an umbrella tonight" and "where is my brother", where voice recognition (and some clever software to figure out the point of the question and expected answers, presumably) is obviously being used.

Apple has over 50 patent documents involving voice recognition, see this list. I do not know if they are for the software used in the actual phones.

For example, User profiling for voice input processing enables the phone to recognise the user's voice. It explains that it can be used in the dark, or by blind people. The user can preselect words as metadata, perhaps as keys for specific commands. Paragraph 0005 mentions "the electronic device can require significant resources to parse complex instructions", and the point of the invention is to restrict the "library" of words that it will try to interpret to those by the owner of the device to save on memory. The main drawing is given below.

Voice recognition, user profiling patent image

A big problem must be working out what is meant by what, to the software, is simply noise. Apple's Semantic reconstruction patent application explains a method of carrying out linguistic analysis so that what is being asked for can be understood.

Many do not realise how many patent documents there are (I've been asked if I look at each newly published patent): in the related sector of the creation of a thesaurus of terms, there are over 130 results, and these are merely those coded as G06F17/30TGT in the ECLA classification, which omits patent documents published in the Far East. For those countries, the broader G0617/30 class would be used, with words to narrow down the search. Unless of course they had been published in the West. And that means selecting words that have the right meaning, those used in linguistics.

Someone once said to me that patent searching wasn't rocket science. No, it's not -- it's often harder.