Cobots And Value Added Tasks

Collaborative robots (cobots) are designed to be easy to program and re-program, easily move between one facility location and another, and have a low upfront cost.  They are designed to work with, not replace humans.  At last week’s Coffee with Cobots, commercialization and partnership expert David McFeeters-Krone, in partnership with Oregon and Washington’s Manufacturers Extension Partnership programs and Bill Smart of Oregon State discussed the application of cobots to help expand the workforce and service the unmet needs created by the expected 2 million unfilled manufacturing job vacancies expected over the next ten years.  In under a minute, it was possible to program the cobots available at the meeting to execute simple tasks.  Oregon State has a charter to help local industry and is available to partner with local industries to establish a proof of concept for the use of these robots.  Do you have dangerous, dirty, dull or hard tasks at your facility? Consider how cobots can assist your manufacturing process and allow you to place your humans in more interesting and value-added tasks.

 McCoy Russell is a leading firm in the intellectual property space around robotics, with significant experience in areas ranging from autonomous vehicles to cobots.  John Russell, one of the firm’s partners, completed his Master’s at the University of Californa, Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Lab that was at the forefront of human-assisting robots using force feedback control. Understanding current research and development on cobots and how facilities are using them allows us to help our clients obtain important patent protection for their business.  Besides, cobots are fun. 

Reaching for the Summit of Autonomous Mobility Technology

We recently had the opportunity to attend the Autonomous Mobility Summit, a meeting of field experts and stakeholders hosted by Technology Association of Oregon (TAO). The conference included representation everywhere from vehicle manufacturers to public utilities to policy stakeholders.

Though seemingly eclectic, this group shared the common goal of positioning Oregon to be a leader for next-generation mobility solutions. Conferences such as these are beneficial not only for uniting entities in a mission bigger than themselves but also to figure out what their niche is in the landscape as a whole. For example, from a business standpoint, technological redundancies can be avoided and companies can get a better sense of where technology is moving.

Moreover, by interfacing with others in this way, companies have the ability to anticipate where they will fit into that technological landscape in the future and coordinate their IP appropriately. In this way, companies not only get to contribute to innovative technology but also to protect intellectual investments along the way.

One interesting aspect of participating in an event such as the Autonomous Mobility Summit is that the technologies being presented and discussed are well established from an IP standpoint. Thus, the challenge is for companies to be forward thinking about how the technologies being discussed in the present will evolve in the short and long-term future.

From our standpoint, attending events such as these is an important investment. By being a part of these conversations, we are better able to serve our clients, as we are not only aware of where technology currently is at but also where it is going. Having an understanding of the way technology is developing, we are better equipped to increase the scope and value of each patent filing.

By: Kathryn Chi and Katie Tallman

Blackberry sues Facebook for Patent Infringement

Blackberry had moved forward with a lawsuit filed in California against Facebook for infringing numerous patents, including US patents 7,372,961; 8,209,634; 8,279,173; 8,301,713; 8,429,236; 8,677,250; and 9,349,120. Blackberry is asserting that Facebook and its subsidiaries are infringing these patents, specifically with regard to messaging applications including, Facebook and Facebook Messenger for Android and iOS devices, WhatsApp Messenger for Android and iOS devices, and Instagram for Android and iOS devices, as well as the Facebook website.

Blackberry's patents cover a range of features and represent their portfolio-based approach, where a number of patent applications are filed on various aspects of a product. This creates the greatest uncertainty for Facebook - while they might be able to dodge one or two patents, dodging the whole portfolio becomes much more difficult.

Balckberry's patents are not pure software patents, but rather some address the interface with hardware. Specifically, US 9,349,120 (titled, "System and method for silencing notifications for a message thread") a covers communication system configured to silence notifications for incoming electronic messages. The system includes a data processor and non-transitory media readable by the data processor and a communications subsystem, and relates to controlling the display of certain information. Elements of claim 1 include instructions to:

receive a selected message thread for silencing;
in response to receiving the selected message thread, activate a flag stored in the non-transitory media in association with the selected message thread, wherein the flag indicates that the selected message thread has been silenced;
determine that a new incoming electronic message is associated with the selected message thread;
determine that the selected message thread has been flagged as silenced using the flag stored in the non-transitory media;
override a currently-enabled notification setting to prevent a receipt notification pertaining to new incoming electronic messages associated with the selected message thread from being activated; and
display the new incoming electronic message in an inbox together with any message thread not flagged as silenced, while silencing any further notifications pertaining to receipt of the new incoming electronic message, wherein the new incoming message thread flagged as silenced is displayed in the inbox in a different manner than any message thread not flagged as silenced.

Such an approach is applicable to the situation where incoming messages related to the same matter are grouped into one or more message threads. A user can select to silence a message thread. Once a message thread has been silenced, the user will no longer receive notifications of new messages added to the thread. SUch an approach obviously can offer great convenience to the user. 

Blackberry alleges that Facebook seized on their success and demand for consumer messaging platforms featuring BlackBerry’s innovative features and functionalities, and have developed and released their respective infringing messaging applications that incorporate and unlawfully utilize BlackBerry’s patented technologies.

Time will tell how things progress.

The Integrated Fan-Out Package and the Patents Protecting It

Manufacturing processors for Apple’s iPhone is prized business. The development of the Integrated Fan-Out (InFO) package has helped Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) manufacture the Apple A10 and A11 processors. Competitors such as Samsung have manufactured processors for Apple as recently as the generation before the introduction of InFO.

The InFO package is not a radically new design. InFO is a combination of processes that are known in the field. Fan-out wafer level processing (FOWLP), which InFO is based on, has been in use since embedded wafer-level ball-grid arrays in 2009. However, the InFO packaging combine FOWLP with redistribution layers, through layer vias, and package on package architecture to create a more efficient overall design.

FOWLP provides several advantages over other types of packaging. A fundamental problem of semiconductor manufacturing is that performance of integrated circuits increase as dimensions decrease but performance of interconnects often decrease with dimensional decrease. The dimensions of current integrated circuits create several problems for interconnections.  The difficulty of manufacturing and resistance increase as dimensions decrease. Furthermore, the available area to connect inputs and outputs decreases. Therefore, as the performance of the integrated circuit increases, the number of inputs and outputs to connect the integrated circuit may decrease or remain stagnant. Crosstalk noise and shielding are also problematic as the space between the interconnects decreases.

FOWLP and InFO partially mitigate these problems by mounting the integrated circuit to a redistribution layer with efficient connections and more available space for inputs and outputs. In the figure[1] below, the system on chip (SOC) is mounted to the redistribution layer. The figure depicts the area of the SOC compared to the greater area of the redistribution layer, shown in blue, which is used to mount input/outputs.

The InFO package provides performance benefits comparable to those seen in an iteration of scaling the dimensions of an integrated circuit. Specifically, TSMC has claimed a 20% reduction in overall package thickness, a 20% speed gain, and 10% better power dissipation.[2] The reduction in overall package thickness is due to the elimination of a solder bump layer on the underside of the integrated circuit as discussed in the first blog post. The speed gain and power dissipation are due in part to efficient connections.

In TSMC’s paper InFO (Wafer Level Integrated Fan-Out) Technology, the benefits of InFO are discussed.  The paper describes TSMC’s use of fine pitch connections in the redistribution layer with line width/space/ height of 2μm/2μm/2μm. TSMC was able to minimize the cross talk noise and increase shielding efficiency. The InFO package was tested and compared to a flip-chip package on package (FC-POP) method. FC-POP is used in many processors, including Apple’s previous generations. Compared to FC-POP, the InFO package showed 20% better eye-height opening, which is used to measure the integrity and noise of the signal. The InFO package also showed better power distribution performance. InFO had a 7 times lower impedance and reduced power noise by 47% compared to FC-POP. Further still, InFO showed better thermal performance. When both packages were supplied with the same power source, InFO showed a lower junction temperature, lower thermal resistance, and lower leakage current. The InFO package can therefore be operated at higher power without damaging materials. This information is shown below in a table provided in the paper.

A search of US patents assigned to TSMC, published since January 1, 2015, and including “Integrated fan-out” will populate 323 publications and 51 grants. Many of the publications include “Integrated fan-out” in the title. The applications range in claimed subject matter. The system itself is covered by many granted patents as well as methods of manufacture. Furthermore, specific structures such as polymer layers, connector pads, and shielding are also covered by granted patents. One example of an allowed claim is:

A method for forming a semiconductor package comprising: attaching a first die to a first carrier; depositing a first isolation material around the first die; after depositing the first isolation material, bonding a second die to the first die, wherein bonding the second die to the first die comprises forming a dielectric-to-dielectric bond; removing the first carrier; and forming fan-out redistribution layers (RDLs) on an opposing side of the first die as the second die, wherein the fan-out RDLs are electrically connected to the first die and the second die.

The example claim shows a reasonably broad scope considering the amount of art related to semiconductor packaging. The volume of the patent applications and grants, broad area of subject matter covered, and scope of the patents demonstrates TSMC’s investment in InFO and intellectual property to protect it. The portfolio may also provide a considerable advantage as competitors try to develop similar processes.

The next post will discuss how roles of companies surrounding electronics packaging are changing and the future of the market for fan-out packaging.

[1] InFO (Wafer Level Integrated Fan-Out) Technology Chien-Fu Tseng, Chung-Shi Liu, Chi-Hsi Wu, and Douglas Yu, 2016 IEEE 66th Electronic Components and Technology Conference

[2] Q3 2015 Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd Earnings Call

More Than Just Money

Cryptocurrencies have found themselves in the spotlight as of late, with the most popular being Bitcoin.  The understanding of cryptocurrencies appears to be fairly limited, with consumers trying to predict if cryptocurrencies are a flash in the pan or here to stay.  Regardless of your assumptions regarding Bitcoin, which is often characterized as a way for drug dealers to operate without getting caught, there are over 1,000 cryptocurrencies, many of which provide a service, often regarded to as a blockchain technology.

            Bitcoins blockchain technology tracks ownership of bitcoins between peer-to-peer transactions.  However, blockchain technologies offer so much more than that.  For example, Ethereum allows participants to create smart contracts, wherein the smart contract self-executes management, payment, and enforcement.  Additionally, due to the distribution of such contracts (e.g., they are arranged in more than one location), they are nearly impossible to doctor. 

            It is difficult to grasp the utility of such applications considering their novelty and lack of precedent.  However, if the dotcom boom provides us with any indication, this period of unknowing is the perfect opportunity to seize broad blockchain patents. 

            Big blockchain patent players include Bank of America, Fidelity, Mastercard, and IBM.  An example Bank of America patent includes Publication No. U.S. 2017/0331810 which discloses a system for managing access to a blockchain.  A user may search the blockchain via tags associated with each of the blocks.  The user may further allow third parties to gain access to the blockchain.  The patent goes on to describe metering user access to portions of the blockchain, self-regulating how long the user may access the blockchain, and determining any discrepancies (e.g., an incorrect security token).  Nasdaq has also filed blockchain patents, including Publication No. U.S. 2017/0005804, which teaches allowing a blockchain to be updated based on a user input.  A user may request a resource, a blockchain transaction is generated include the newly requested resource, the blockchain transaction is digitally signed, and the generated blockchain is published to a blockchain computing system. 

            As seen with the two example patents above and with many other blockchain patents being published, the blockchain patent frontier is open.  Blockchain technologies appear too useful and their adoption by numerous large companies suggests that they are here to stay.  Applying blockchain technologies to already known systems may be sufficient to garner a patent, allowing one to compete with some of the larger companies listed above. 

Blockchain Technology Patents – A Flurry of Activity

Blockchain patent activity is increasing rapidly. A description of the technology was first published in 2008 anonymously, and no intellectual property protections were placed on it. As the technology has become widely known due to its use by digital currencies, various established companies, as well as numerous start-ups and entrepreneurs, have begun seeking patent protection on innovations to the technology.  To date, there are over 200 US patents related to blockchain technologies granted since the beginning of 2013, including one for a digital currency ATM (US Patent No. 9,135,787), one for making a payment with a tip button (US Patent No. 9,436,935), and one for a system and method of analyzing blockchain transactions (US Patent No. 9,298,806). There are currently over 1000 US patent applications awaiting examination.

The blockchain protocol was developed to solve the technological problem of how to create an open, distributed ledger that was verifiable and immutable. The solution involved bundling transactions into “blocks” that are processed sequentially. Each block contains a hash, or mathematically-derived numerical sequence, which identifies the block that came before it. The end result is a chain of blocks, or “blockchain,” which locks in historical data. Because the blockchain data is decentralized, meaning that it exists simultaneously in many locations, it is very tamper-resistant.

Currently there are over 1,000 digital assets (currencies and tokens) being traded using blockchain technology with a combined market cap currently reaching over $722,000,000,000. The most popular digital currency, bitcoin, alone has a market cap of over $245,000,000,000. These digital assets are currently unregulated, but it is likely that at least some regulation is coming. In the meantime, financial institutions are trying to prepare for growing interest in this new asset class. For example, Bank of America has applied for 20 blockchain-related patents since 2014. JP Morgan, Amex, Visa, and Wells Fargo are among those who have also applied for blockchain-related patents.

For many of financial institutions, the goal is to allow customers to use proprietary software to manage digital assets. As early movers in this area, firms hope to protect themselves from future high licensing fees to offer digital asset services. Currently, those interested in trading or accumulating digital assets generally store their assets on online exchanges of uncertain reliability, or manage multiple digital “wallets,” some of which have uncertain reliability themselves. If a would-be digital asset investor could safeguard their assets through reputable banks, many such investors would jump at the chance.

In the near future, it is likely that activity within this space will continue to heat up as more players enter the arena and seek protections on their innovations. It is uncertain, however, how much digital asset trading will actually be a part of average investors’ portfolios once federal oversight and regulation has been developed and applied to digital assets. Nevertheless, many institutions are either betting that there will be significant activity, or that there is at least too much of a chance that these new assets will take off to ignore the subject altogether.

Potential Market Disruption by the Rising Role of Electronics Packaging

The most cost-effective way to improve computer performance for the last several decades has been to shrink the size of the transistor.  Thousands of patent applications over the years have focused on exactly this approach.  However, shrinking the node size is becoming increasingly less cost effective. This trend is creating more incentive for the creation of other methods to improve computer performance. For example, Taiwan Semiconducting Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has created a package on package method of packaging chips that shows performance increases comparable to an iteration of node shrinkage. Specifically, TSMC has claimed that their Integrated Fan-Out (InFO) process can realize greater than a 20% reduction in overall package thickness, a 20% speed gain, and 10% better power dissipation[1]. These benefits were recognized by Apple when InFO packaging was used in their A10 and A11 processors. TSMC increased their patent filings to 873 in 2016, which is a 74% increase over 2015, and broke into the top 10 in terms of issued US patents in 2016. Many of these filings likely relate to their disruptive new approach.

The performance benefits of InFO are created by its unique configuration.  InFO is similar to a flip chip package on package arrangement. The figure below, from TSMC’s paper InFO (Wafer Level Integrated Fan-Out) Technology, shows the difference between the InFO package and a flip chip package on package. The InFO package eliminates the solder bumps which are used in the flip chip configuration to connect the chip to the laminate. Eliminating the solder bumps is a major factor in decreasing the thickness of the package.

blog 1-12.jpg

The InFO configuration also provides more efficient signal routing. InFO makes use of different interconnection strategies that create shorter travel distances, better signal integrity, less power dissipation, and greater input/output density. The configuration also has greater thermal dissipation creating less risk of malfunction and leakage current. The interconnections and thermal dissipation will be discussed in more detail in the next post.

Furthermore, the rising importance of electronic packaging has created a change in the roles of businesses within the industry. Outsourced semiconductor assembly and test (OSAT) vendors traditionally provided chip packaging services while fabrication facilities or foundries provided the chips. However, TSMC, traditionally a foundry, has now created the InFO package and is making large investments in the second generation of the InFO package. There are further reports that other chip manufactures such as Samsung and Intel are also investing in packaging technologies. The changing market will be discussed in more detail in the third post.

The increasing difficulty of chip scaling is already creating change in the market. The increasing importance of chip packaging may be the beginning of a new trend in the computing industry.

Thanks to Sung Yi, Department Chair at Portland State University, for his knowledge on the subject.

[1] Q3 2015 Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd Earnings Call

3D Printing: Strategy to Get Better Coverage

The boom of 3D printing has improved the manufacturing process of products across many different industries. Products with structures that may have once been complex or even impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing methods may now be possible to make thanks to 3D printing.

            As patent protection has been sought after for 3D printed products, much coverage has instinctively been directed towards 3D printing manufacturing methods. However, as 3D printing becomes pervasive throughout different industries, it may be increasingly difficult to obtain protection for 3D printing manufacturing methods, no matter what product is being 3D printed. Thus, as 3D printing becomes more and more common, claim coverage for 3D printing manufacturing methods may need to be greatly narrowed during prosecution moving forward.

            One strategy to combat these above issues may be to claim the product itself, focusing on structures of the product that are only possible because the product was manufactured using 3D printing.

            As an example, if a first structure that is a first material is 3D printed onto and around a second structure that is a different material, the resulting product may have some distinctive differences compared to the equivalent traditionally manufactured product. In cases where the traditional manufacturing method for making the product is a molding process, for example, the material may be the same for both the first and second structures in the traditional product. Or maybe traditional manufacturing methods result in products that required fasteners to hold the second structure within the first structure, whereas the 3D printed product does not require any fasteners at all.

            Thus, focusing on features of a product that are only possible due to the product being manufactured via 3D printing, rather than only describing the manufacturing method, may prove useful as 3D printing continues to make waves across different industries.

Product Liability Issues

        In a recent blog post, we touched on “outside-the-box” thinking as one way to develop intellectual property portfolios in upcoming technologies. More specifically, we discussed a recent patent application by Google including technology that reduces secondary impact in a situation where an autonomous vehicle strikes a pedestrian.  To reduce secondary impact, an eggshell-like coating over an adhesive layer was proposed, such that the pedestrian may become stuck to the adhesive layer in the event of a collision and the secondary impact may be avoided.

          While this patent application highlights outside-the-box thinking, it also serves to highlight the intersection of technology development and product liability, which is the subject of this post.  Specifically, what you say in a patent application may come back to haunt you in product liability cases. 

         Take the Google patent application discussed above (US 9340178 B1). Via the language in the application, it is made clear that autonomous vehicles may strike pedestrians. To reduce the consequences of such an action, the adhesive layer was proposed.  However, we also noted in our previous post that the concept may or may not ever be implemented. Herein lies a potential problem.  Consider a situation in the future where a Google autonomous vehicle strikes a pedestrian, and the pedestrian is hurt via secondary impact in a situation where the vehicle either did not include the adhesive layer, or included the adhesive layer only on a portion of the vehicle (e.g. the front of the vehicle), where that portion did not strike the pedestrian.  In such examples, if the injured claims that Google was involved in the distribution of an unsafe product, Google may have to defend not using its allegedly great new technology.  

        Thus, such an example serves as an important reminder that when drafting patent applications, admissions of potential safety issues should be carefully considered prior to filing.  One option might be to either avoid such language altogether, or phrase language in such a way as to reduce potential unforeseen product liability issues.