Dr. Wolke, how is the inventive spirit at thyssenkrupp?
Stephan Wolke: Very good overall. Creativity in thyssenkrupp's segments is high. Unfortunately not all good ideas are recognized as inventions and worthy of a patent and reported to the companies’ IP coordinators or us. Means, there could be more reports.
Stephan Wolke: Well, we have incredibly inventive and productive R&D employees, developers and inventors in the Group. However, some people think their inventions are too normal and do not even think of having them reviewed by us. You can be a little more self-confident here. We are happy to check any good idea for its patentability.
Has this always been the case at thyssenkrupp? So, that great emphasis is placed on the protection of inventions?
Stephan Wolke: Basically yes. thyssenkrupp puts great importance to protecting intellectual property. However, a few years ago we introduced a central patent department to ensure that outstanding inventions are systematically patented and registered. In the past we filed over 2,000 patents a year.
During the Corona pandemic, however, we experienced a significant decline - again, the collaborative element was simply missing. Inventions are certainly created while sitting together or sometimes at the coffee machine. Nevertheless, the number of inventions, and thus patent applications, has been on the rise again recently. We are not quite at the pre-Corona level yet, but we are moving towards it. It is particularly pleasing that a number of our future topics have been very well protected with many IP rights in recent months.
Which invention was particularly important for thyssenkrupp in the last year?
Stephan Wolke: We are making very, very good progress in protecting our topics of the future. In addition to the mega topics of sustainability and digitalization, hydrogen is a particularly important one. In the field of hydrogen, we already hold patents on a wide variety of topics along the entire green value chain - from the generation of green hydrogen, its intermediate storage and recovery, to the consumption of green hydrogen in the manufacture of green products such as green steel and green cement. In addition, new patent applications are being filed all the time.
For example, at thyssenkrupp nucera many new inventions are being created in connection with the further development of plants for the production of green hydrogen. Around 20 patents and patent applications currently protect topics such as cell design, units and modules of the electrolyzer, and processes for operating the plant. However, valuable inventions were also made last year on the subject of green ammonia - mainly by thyssenkrupp Uhde. This involves the production of green ammonia, which is much simpler to be transported over long distances than hydrogen. However, we also filed patents for the recovery of hydrogen from ammonia on behalf of thyssenkrupp Uhde.
Inventions to avoid CO2 emissions are also of great importance in the focus technologies. The CO2-intensive cement industry in particular is currently working on several developments to reduce emissions. "Green Cement" is both the buzzword and the goal here.
And at thyssenkrupp Steel, in addition to the successful Carbon2Chem project, intensive work is being carried out on the production of green steel by direct reduction with hydrogen. Both topics therefore aim to avoid CO2 emissions and are now well covered by new patents.
In addition, thyssenkrupp Automotive Technology is presenting inventions in connection with solutions suitable for integration in vehicles with electric drives. thyssenkrupp Presta Steering and thyssenkrupp Dynamic Components are working on some patent-worthy ideas here.
Last but not least, a wide range of inventions in the area of digitalization have been and are being created in almost all thyssenkrupp segments: Cloud-based IoT solutions at carValoo are just as much a part of this as predictive maintenance solutions at Industrial Components and the use of artificial intelligence in a variety of ways.
In all these areas, we filed more than 300 new patents last year, which will later become patent families - an increase of 16 percent compared to 2021.
How many patents and trademarks does thyssenkrupp hold in total?
Stephan Wolke: thyssenkrupp holds 15,713 patents, six percent more than a year earlier (14,760). In addition, we register and manage 9,484 trademark rights worldwide.
Personally, I am pleased that we were successful in a number of patent proceedings last year, winning 12 out of 13 opposition proceedings. Incidentally, this is also an important task of the patent department. Every year we file numerous oppositions against competitors' patents which thyssenkrupp believes should not have been granted. In addition, we successfully defended our Group trademark against a large number of imitators or asserted claims for damages.
Why is a central department for IP protection important at thyssenkrupp?
Stephan Wolke: The top priority is always to protect the innovations of our Group and its companies. We call this effective IP protection.
A lack of patent awareness and patents can lead to us having to acquire expensive licenses from other companies or even being prohibited from product features or production processes. Sufficient patent protection ensures that we have enough patent substance. This can have a deterrent effect on competitors, can be used for cross licensing, or can be licensed to other market players. Therefore, it is very important for the core business. As a central IP department, we try to raise precisely this patent awareness, leverage synergies between the individual companies and crosscutting technologies, and holistically avoid IP risks that may not be directly recognized by the individual businesses.
Nevertheless, patents also provide a specific value contribution by supporting our companies in carrying out their businesses in the best possible way. Patents allow thyssenkrupp companies to produce what they want and how they want without interference. In addition, they force competitors into expensive workarounds or ensure that only we are allowed to sell a certain product or feature in it. This secures important competitive advantages for both the thyssenkrupp Group and the individual thyssenkrupp companies.
Another task of our patent department is to provide this protection as efficiently as possible. We achieve this primarily through our own patent attorneys and the engagement of external law firms, which are centrally managed, monitored and compared with regard to the quality of their work results.
In addition, we ensure that all brand names used, such as thyssenkrupp, thyssenkrupp Bilstein, thyssenkrupp Uhde, thyssenkrupp Polysius or our numerous product brands, are protected in all relevant countries. In this way, we prevent attacks by third parties. We take targeted action worldwide against imitators of our trademarks or company names and against domain infringement, which increased significantly last year. In this way, we protect not only our image but also our customers, who are increasingly being financially harmed by fake websites and phishing e-mails.
Both, the provision of effective patent protection by creating awareness for patents and the efficient provision of the service, are only possible in a separate central IP department. Incidentally, in-house IP departments exist in all larger companies or corporate groups in Germany and abroad.
How are inventions supported at thyssenkrupp?
Stephan Wolke: That's a very good question. First of all, it is important to raise awareness for the economic benefits of patents among employees and managers. On the one hand, sufficient patent protection reduces the risk that would exist without protection - for example, of being sued and subsequently not being able to produce something as we planned, or not being able to produce it as we planned, or having to pay high royalties. On the other hand, patents give us the opportunity to be the only ones to sell certain products or their properties, or to produce them using certain processes. The additional sales generated as a result lead directly to profits from patents.
Many managers and executives at thyssenkrupp have recognized this. My team and I are pleased that our three patent messages have been received in many business units and are being actively communicated to the workforce.
What are the three patent messages?
Stephan Wolke: Protect, Respect and Detect. The first message, "Protect," stands for encouraging employees to report technical inventions to us and thus protect what we have through patents. "Respect" is the second message. It sensitizes us to ensure in our development processes that we do not infringe on other existing patents under any circumstances. That can be very costly, through late changes, royalties or production stops. And the third message, "Detect," calls on all employees to go through the world with their eyes open and help us uncover patent or even trademark infringements. This can happen on the Internet, but also at trade shows, when visiting service technicians or when buying competitor products. The possibilities here are of course different in every thyssenkrupp company.
Thank you, Dr. Wolke, for this interview.