The Zig-Zag Invention of the Dyson Airblade

Check out this story about how an invention emerged from an improvisational, wandering, zig-zag process, as James Dyson tells us about the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, in a letter to the editor in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. is bold when it comes to invention. In 2014 there were more patents granted in the U.S. than in any other country, but there is a global competition to develop the best technology. The U.S. government isn’t alone in wanting to attract highly inventive companies to develop intellectual property on its shores (“Tax Writers Favor Breaks for Patents,” Business & Tech., May 6).

Research and development is a risky business; there are no eureka moments and no certainty of success. Often the biggest breakthroughs are the ones you least expect. The Dyson Airblade hand dryer, for example, was a rather fortuitous result of a failed experiment. The technology we were originally working on is still in the labs, but the unexpected result is in washrooms around the world.

You can’t predict the outcome of R&D, and often it ends in failure—albeit failures that teach you valuable lessons and spur on future advances. But by encouraging companies to invest in R&D, you also create a highly skilled, highly paid workforce and boost exports in the process, as other countries demand the high technology that results.

The patent box has proved itself to be a very effective way of encouraging investment into R&D in the U.K. However, to be most effective, it must focus on the development of genuine technologies that improve our lives. So embrace the incentives—keep tinkering, keep researching and keep inventing!

James Dyson

Malmesbury, England

Can You Patent a Process?

The Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear a case questioning whether a “business process” can be patented.  Thousands of patents now cover business processes, including the famous (or infamous) Amazon.com patent on ordering with “one click”.  But there’s been a lot of debate about whether a novel process should even be patentable at all.

The case is known as Bilski v. Doll.  And the Supreme Court rarely agrees to hear patent-related cases, so everyone is paying close attention.  The patent request, for a method for hedging risks in the sale of commodities, was filed by Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw in 1997.  The patent examiner rejected the application because it failed to meet a test laid out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which limited business process patents as follows: a process must be tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or it must transform a particular article into a different state or thing.  This has become known as the “machine-or-transformation” test, and the hedging risk process did not meet that test. The applicants appealed the rejection, which was upheld by the Federal Circuit (not surprising, because they came up with the test in the first place!).  Bilski further appealed to the Supreme Court, which is now considering whether or not this test is too restrictive.

Whatever the outcome, the issue of business process patents is complex and unlikely to be settled by the Supreme Court this time around.  The consensus in the business community is that process patenting has gotten out of hand.  Even IBM, which year after year is granted the most patents of any company, is against process patents.  IBM lawyer David Kappos says “In the industrial age, innovation primarily was the result of work by individuals or small groups within enterprise.  The nature of innovation has changed. Today, we benefit from innovations made possible through highly collaborative and interconnected technologies.” (quoted in L. Gordon Crovitz’s WSJ editorial on June 15, 2009, p. A13).  This is exactly the message of my book, GROUP GENIUS.