A long tradition: innovation and intellectual property protection at thyssenkrupp

For the fifth time in succession thyssenkrupp is among the 100 most active companies in the annual ranking of the European Patent Office (EPO). In 2019 alone the Group filed more than 600 first-time patent applications for inventions. With 300 patent applications to the European Patent Office, thyssenkrupp ranks 12th among Germany's most active companies in 2019. no wonder, as innovative strength and protection of intellectual property have a long tradition in the company: thyssenkrupp's patent department is one of the oldest in the country.

On International Intellectual Property Day, we look back on 125 years of patent history and talk to Dr. Stephan Wolke, CEO of the corporate intellectual property department, about the work of the Group’s patent experts.

Only last year thyssenkrupp Intellectual Property GmbH was voted Germany’s best patent department by the magazine JUVE. Since 2016 thyssenkrupp has regularly ranked among the 20 most active patent applicants from Germany thanks to its dedicated patent experts. “We have built up a portfolio of more than 22,000 patents and utility models to protect all of thyssenkrupp’s key technologies,” explains Dr. Stephan Wolke, CEO of thyssenkrupp Intellectual Property. Each year around 600 new inventions worldwide are added to the list.

125 years of innovation and patent protection

And it’s been like that for more than 125 years. In March 1895, the predecessor company of today’s industrial group, Fried. Krupp AG, founded the first patent office in the company’s history. In the first year alone Krupp registered 114 patents. Three years later, in 1897, the number of patented ideas had risen to 260.  And the need to protect the company’s intellectual property continued to grow in the following years – by 1902 already seven people were working in the department.

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An overview of the patent portfolio in March 1925.

In doing so, the Krupp company contributed early to the development of intellectual property protection in Germany. “The Imperial Patent Office in Berlin had only been established as a national patent authority some years earlier,” explains Stephan Wolke. “Until then, the protection of intellectual property had not been uniformly regulated.” At Krupp, however, it was clear early on that good ideas must be protected.

A look at the patent archive

For instance, the seamless wheel tyre for railways. Thanks to Alfred Krupp’s revolutionary idea, trains could travel at more than 30 km/h for the first time in the 19th century. Previously, the wheels simply broke at the weld seam at this speed. Even before founding his own patent office, Krupp had his invention patented in Prussia in 1853 to protect it from imitators.

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To this day, the invention of seamless railway wheel tires can be found in the thyssenkrupp logo.

Stainless steel, developed in 1912, was also indispensable. Its resistance to rust, acids and heat contributed to the development of the chemical industry in Germany, among other things. What only a few people know: Krupp was also involved in the first diesel engine. The engine was developed jointly by Rudolf Diesel, Maschinenfabrik Augsburg and Fried. Krupp from the year 1897.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know which was the first patent,” Wolke explains, adding that patent work in the Group is all the more modern today.

Then as now: Protection against copycats

Today, thyssenkrupp Intellectual Property GmbH is operating worldwide with more than 40 employees at locations in Germany, the USA and China. Then as now, patents have one main goal: they prevent others from making unauthorized use of ideas and copy the innovation. Thus, the inventor can initially profit from his idea alone or demand compensation for its use. “After all, companies put a lot of time and money into their research and development departments,” says Wolke. “Therefore, a patent is usually protected for 20 years.”

At the same time patents prevent that research on the same problem is conducted in several places and show where innovations are still possible. “We already check during the development process whether another company has previously filed a patent for a technical solution. At thyssenkrupp, we work with artificial intelligence developed specifically for this purpose,” says patent expert Stephan Wolke. The AI can check competitor analysis for patents and sort them according to relevance with an extremely high hit rate.

Promoting and encouraging patents

“Once a year, the subject of patents should be on the table of every board member,” says Stephan Wolke. “At thyssenkrupp our patent professionals meet annually for two hours with the heads of our business units to discuss how the strategic positioning with IP supports the achievement of business goals.” The goal: a complete review of the patent strategy for each business area. “In doing so, we ask ourselves: Which technologies need to be newly – or still – protected? In which countries is this patent protection necessary? Where are the competitors developing, producing or selling? And how many patents are they applying for,” the expert explains.

These are important questions that help to align the company’s intellectual property processes correctly and profitably. Issues that the experts at thyssenkrupp Intellectual Property GmbH deal with for the entire Group. They conduct competitor analysis, monitor patent or trademark infringements or initiate awareness campaigns and incentive programs for more innovativeness.

“Supervisors should encourage their employees to invent, consistently value them and draw attention to the possibility of patenting their ideas,” says Wolke, explaining the aim of the company’s Inventor Incentive, which was launched in 2014. “On the one hand, in everyday business, and on the other hand, financially through a globally uniform system of incentives.”

Inventor Incentive: Ideas should be worthwhile

The background to this remuneration system is that the Group’s know-how is not only to be protected, it can also be financially rewarding for the inventors. “Some of us have already earned something extra with a patent application,” says Wolke. 1,000 euros is paid to individual inventors or entire teams who submit a convincing technical idea for a patent application to thyssenkrupp. The invention applications are reviewed by a committee made up of the respective head of development, the head of marketing & sales and an intellectual property coordinator in the business units. “In this way we promptly reward our inventors for their ideas,” explains Wolke.

Examples of patents recently filed with the European Patent Office include innovations from the Carbon2Chem climate protection project, a process for the production of weight-optimized camshafts, and improvements in mining equipment. For International Intellectual Property Day we have summarized our absolute highlights on our blog.