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AOM4060/6061: Agri-Food Systems Innovation: Existing Solutions

Understanding the problem and context is an important part of the engineering design process. This guide can help.

Where do you find inspiration for design ideas? Patents!

This page has some tips and tricks for searching patents -- which is a tricky exercise because:
  1. Most patents protect a function rather than an application -- such as, an extruder rather than a device for making donuts or drinking straws.
  2. Many large and complex products are governed by multiple patents developed over time by different inventors.
  3. Some inventors (and their patent attorneys) deliberately use obscure language to hide their intentions until a product is released.
  4. Many patents do not contain the product, brand, or trade name.  They may be trying to hide, or they may not have devised the product name at the time of the patent application.
  5. Some products (such as Gatorade) are not patented, often because the inventor does not want the secrets to be published.

Using Patents

Here are two guides from the World Intellectual Property Organization regarding intellectual property for small businesses:
Inventing the Future: And Introduction to Patents for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
Looking Good: An Introduction to Industrial Designs for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

Types of Patents

Patent websites vary in coverage. Some only have full text or images for recent years. Some have better quality images than others. In some search engines, keywords only work on recent years. If you are doing a full, deep, and serious search, be sure to identify and search on the patent classifications as well as keywords. There are three types of U.S. patents:


May be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.
Utility patents are the most common type of patent and protect an invention for 20 years. 
Example: Eye tracking apparatus configured for degrading iris authentication (US11079843B2) 



May be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.
Design patent numbers start with D and are protected for 14 years.
Example: Wiper blade ornament (USD707612S1)


May be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
Plant patent numbers start with PP and are protected for 20 years.
Example: Blueberry plant called Emerald (USPP12165P2)
...and patents include definitions of terms used. Remember, though, that patents are written by attorneys and not by inventors!

Where to Search

Step 1: Create a list of keywords

Patents tend to be awarded for function rather than for application. Use these strategies to help develop a list of potential keywords to use in your search:
Think about:
* What does the invention do -- function and purpose?
* What is the outcome or result?  What problem does it solve?
* How does it work?
* What is it composed of? What materials are used?

Step 2: Keyword Searching

Once you have brainstormed some keywords based on your products' purpose, composition and use you are ready to start!
If you're just looking for ideas, sample patents are easy to find. Use Google Patents or The Lens to try your keywords.
You can also use Google's Advanced Patent Search or the Lens's Structured Search to limit to:
  • inventor (individuals)
  • assignee/owner (company/institution)
  • range of years
  • countries where the patent was filed
  • etc.
Sometimes, a brand name is used in a patent, such as the Roomba, which is a "robot obstacle detection system."
When you find patents similar to your concept, make note of their assigned classification numbers, which look like these.

Step 3: Classification Searching

Searching patents and published applications by classification usually results in a more comprehensive search than one done by word and phrases (keyword searching).Use this process to find a classification that matches your interest:
  1. Find a few similar patents
  2. Note the classifications assigned to those patents
  3. Search the classes in a different patent search tools (Patent Lens, Espacenet, USPTO, etc)
  4. Read the definitions of those classes
  5. Search on the relevant classification codes
  6. Repeat the process until you are satisfied you have found patents to suit your purpose
University of Central Florida Libraries offers this quick and helpful video explaining patent classification and how to conduct a search in Espacenet.
University of Florida Home Page

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