Patents are not just for new processes. Changes to existing ones can also qualify for protection, says Michael Taylor
MOST engineers are aware that new, inventive devices can be patented. What is less well known, or rather, what is less commonly at the front of an engineer’s mind, is that new or improved processes can also be patented. For chemical engineers, having an awareness of patenting processes can add value for employers.
When we think about “inventions”, often what immediately comes to mind are patents being granted for improved devices. It is clear that in making a design change, that change will have some effect, when compared to the devices which were previously available. That effect may be an improvement of some sort (the device being cheaper to manufacture, more sensitive, more reliable etc), and that can usually be patented. Even small improvements are often enough to attain a granted patent. The same thing is true for processes.
Take the example of an existing process. A chemical engineer may change the process in some way that makes it more efficient, more compact or transportable, more reliable, or less sensitive to slight changes in feedstock or environmental conditions. As you can imagine, there are many more ways a process can be improved. And the improvements to the process could be patentable.
Given that this is usually what we as chemical engineers do when we alter an existing process, patents should be front of mind when we change something to improve it.
The opportunity exists for employers to protect these improvements, and increase the value of the intellectual property (IP) assets of the company.
At one extreme, there are companies that prefer to steer clear of pursuing IP, believing it to be expensive or a poor use of resources. It can be expensive, and, if managed poorly, it can be a poor use of resources.
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