How do new ideas occur to us? What is the secret mixture that enables this spark that creates something new?  I have long wondered this, including when watching my son build things that I found interesting, and with no clear sign of what of the source of that idea that became reality.  I saw him build things with Lego blocks, and I watched him build things at an online game called Roblox.  In both instances it made me think, what is the source?

The same is true for my own life, especially my work life.  I have been part of groups that have produced 7 US patents and other intellectual property.  Each time was so different it is difficult to discern an underlying theme that made this creation possible or at least facilitated.  What can be said in each instance to varying degrees, is there was a perceived difficulty or problem, some desired end state that was presently not possible or if possible was cost or logistically prohibitive.  In some cases that problem was seen by engineering in the frame of “if only….” or “what if….”.  In other cases it was a customer driven demand.  From recall, I think, at no time did we set out to make a patent. First we had a problem, then we had a solution that, to us, seemed to be unique.  It would be then that we would start searching the USPTO office database to see if the idea was indeed unique.  If it passed this test, we would forward the information on the what we drew up and often by that time actually had some functionality on our way to the end product, to the patent attorney of the organization. The attorney would get specifications and feature content documents as well as drawings, everything we had on how the product did and would work.  They would do a more thorough exploration of existing patents.  The patent attorney would prod us to think of the various incarnations we could think of to achieve the objective of the intellectual property.  After this point, the work becomes mechanical. To me, the interesting part is:

  • How do we get to that point where the work is mechanical? That is, the creation part before the work becomes mechanical.
  • What is that catalyst idea, or sentence or action that could be traced back as the origin?
  • What quality (or qualities) of the people (or person) involved are required to create this new things?

I do not know these things, but I do know that in many of the instances, the creation was uncomfortable for a number of reasons.  For example, I am not a smoker, I have had at time respiratory problems so I try to stay away from this.  However, some of the engineers with whom I worked, were smokers.  There were many times we start a discussion in the lab but could see the distractions from the daily work prohibited a good discussion of the problem at hand.  We would walk out to the smoking area, sometimes it would be beautiful out, other times the weather was not cooperative.  We would then be free of the immediacy of the job, and could explore other possibilities, new ideas or combinations of existing ideas we could put together to solve the problem or limitation at hand.

I know that every patent we generated, were with the same set of team members, with some fluctuation.  For 3 of the patents, the team was consistent, the new system we were working to design and produce ended up producing three associated but different intellectual properties.  In each patent team, there was a high degree of camaraderie.  There were stressful times, but the team members never took the stress out on each other . There was a dose of frivolity, or fun loving along with the work.

In many of the cases, the patent generated was not what would be referred to as our full time part of the job of the individual. This means the team members were carrying two work loads (at least) and the patent would be a substantial bit of work.  Adding this to the existing work load was not a motivating aspect of the work.  In fact, I recall considerable complaining about this additional stress.  I cannot help but think that stress is helpful to some degree.

The companies at which I worked offered interesting compensation for those that generated intellectual property for the company.  It was fitting that they did this, since to produce this material when this is not your full time day job takes time, and when you are an engineer, this overtime is uncompensated.

In fact, I was part of a team that after the work was done and the patent submission finally makes it to the final stages of the approval process, the company decides to change the compensation.  Though that team had many more ideas to explore that would perhaps lead to intellectual property for the organization, this team did not produce any more intellectual property material for the organization after this ex post facto change to the patent compensation.  In fact, discussions with the other departments of that organization, there was a reduction in the number of patents produced per year . That may not be the cause of the effect, but perhaps it is.   Perhaps, identification with the organization and trust in the organization, are motivating factors that facilitate intellectual property for the organization.

In each team that I was part that produced patents or intellectual property there was a diversity of experiences, both inside the organization experiences, and outside of the organization experiences.  There was plenty of overlap in experiences also. For example, all were product development people, engineer, technicians or marketing people.  Many (and maybe all) were musicians.  There was a wide range of years doing the work, from 10 years and more.

In each of these patent teams, there was no formalized or hierarchical assigned leader of the patent team.  The leader developed out of the nature of the work in three cases, he project was run by a engineer and the project generated intellectual property for this project. The project was an exploration into creating a heavily multiplexed demonstration vehicle, not for production, which provide many opportunities to generate intellectual property.

In other instances, the lead depended upon the work or who was closest to the patent attorney or had time to develop and maintain contact with the patent attorney.

Ideas were not summarily dismissed. Each idea was recorded and and reviewed at a later time.  Some would obviously fall away, other would require exploration and testing to ascertain suitability.  Nobody was mocked for their contribution, no mater how weird or bizarre or stupid idea.

During my undergraduate degree, we had many projects where we exercised what was being learned, probably the same today.  One of those projects was to build a single stage amplifier with a NPN transistor, with a specific expected gain, and that gain was expected to be the same across he wide range of temperatures, most importantly, at the high temperature range the gain should still hit the target. In a class of more than 100 student, all but one of the students worked the transistors biasing to arrive at the best spot that would allow the gain to be within targets at the high end of the temperature range.  One person accomplished this differently rather than trying many bias techniques.  This person, knew that as temperature goes up, the forward gain comes down, in fact, the transistor data sheet shows this relationship.  This person was also aware of positive temperature coefficient resistors, those are resistors that increase in resistance as temperature increases. The forward gain (beta) and the emitter resistor, are key to the gain of the amplifier.  In this design, the emitter resistor would be a PTC resistor that allowed the gain to remain constant at the upper range of the temperature.  This happened quite by accident.  Had I not accidentally read about PTC resistors in some other technical literature, it would never have occurred to me that this would be a way out of the gain reduction of this BJT at elevated temperatures. I also needed to know the relationship between gain and temperature.  Out of that class, there was one solution that included a PTC resistor that increased as beta decreased in the same proportion as the resistance goes up.

I wonder what is the catalyst or this creation.  It seems to me some of the parameters are likely:

  • a challenge that we are motivated to meet or a problem we are motivated to solve
  • the ability to connect things that are seemingly dis-associated
  • environment where exploration and failure is not terminal
  • multiple perspectives – (where possible) no one dominating direction or methods
  • personal relationships along with the working relationship (at least in my experience)

Patents while at Volvo

Patents at PACCAR


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