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Businessweek Archives

Memo To U.S. Inventors: File Early

Developments to Watch


FOR BASEMENT TINKERERS and corporate researchers alike, the New Year has brought new competition: From now on, overseas inventors will get equal treatment from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, ending decades of favoritism. The change was mandated by the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade and took effect on Jan. 1.

Before that, American patent law stipulated that any research efforts undertaken outside the U.S. could not be used to prove when an invention was conceived. So if an American could document that work on some idea had begun before the date that a foreign researcher applied for a U.S. patent on the same concept, then the American would win--even if the offshore work had started first. (In other countries, there would be no dispute: Patents go to the first party to file, not the first to invent.) For the same reason, overseas inventors never bother to challenge U.S. patents that infringe on their prior work.

The new ground rules mean that research laboratories must be extra diligent in documenting their activities, cautions Jerry D. Voight, a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, a patent-law firm in Washington. The ownership of many patents that earned millions, he notes, was ultimately decided in the courtroom.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top


IMAGINE DISCOVERING that a new jet engine has to be disassembled just to make everyday repairs--and all because some critical part turns out to be inaccessible. To avoid that awful turn of events, engineers at General Electric Co. used to build mock-ups of engines in the design stage. But a mock-up can cost millions of dollars, and it's difficult for model makers to keep up-to-date with the latest design revision.

Software can provide the answer. Researchers from General Electric's research and development center and Aircraft Engines unit developed Project Vision, a program that checks designs for ease of repair. Based in part on collaborative work with Stanford University, GE's program shows 3-D images of the volume of air that a part would sweep through as it is wiggled out (yellow area). Anything jutting into that "keep-out zone" would have to be removed first.

Now, GE engineers are working to show the volume swept by tools that are brought in to make repairs. Earlier versions of the software helped design the GE90 engine for Boeing's new 777 jumbo, among other engines.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

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BLIZZARDS, HURRICANES, AND OTHER DISASTERS CAN BRING down power lines and plunge your house into darkness. Wouldn't it be nice, mused engineers at Aura Systems Inc., if your home could then draw electrical power from your car?

Turning a car's engine into an auxiliary generator would take only minor revisions, they decided. So technicians at the former defense contractor in El Segundo, Calif., rolled up their sleeves. They tore out the mechanical starter motor and alternator, replacing them with a combined electrical system. Then they added electrical coils to the flywheel, the heavy metal disk that spins to dampen engine vibration, so it could double as an electromagnetic rotor for power generation.

Result: an engine that can easily power an entire household when idling--producing 7,000 watts, says Aura Chief Executive Zvi "Harry" Kurtzman. Aura has applied for a patent and will unveil its engine-generator at the Society of Automotive Engineers show, scheduled for late February in Detroit. The redesign also makes sense for tomorrow's cars, which may need a new source of power if auto makers keep adding more electronic gizmos. Cars already on the road, Kurtzman reckons, could be equipped with power outlets for a few hundred dollars.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

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