PATENTLY IN DIGITAL VIOLATION?

Unless I’m very much mistaken, a 1980s European patent (EP 0 325 592 B1), which has recently been thrust hard into the limelight by force of impending legal action in this Country (Control and Instrumentation, March, News, page 12 and April, News Analysis, also page 12) could, if that action succeeds, have extraordinary and indeed […]

Unless I’m very much mistaken, a 1980s European patent (EP 0 325 592 B1), which has recently been thrust hard into the limelight by force of impending legal action in this Country (Control and Instrumentation, March, News, page 12 and April, News Analysis, also page 12) could, if that action succeeds, have extraordinary and indeed potentially devastating consequences for quite literally most of measurement and control as we know it today.

The action itself is being brought against Monitoring Systems, a Kent-based company, and it concerns its digitally-based sub-millimetric displacement measurement and data logging systems. They’re primarily for the construction industry – currently in use, for example, on the Jubilee Line extension, monitoring structural movements.

Slope Indicator, a subsidiary of Boart International, in turn part of the Anglo-American giant, is claiming that its above-mentioned patent is infringed by Monitoring Systems’ devices.

Well, I hear you say, that’s the construction industry, isn’t it? Not relevant to process! But the plain fact is that when you read the patent documentation you rapidly find that it might be.

EP 0 325 592 B1 seems to go to the very heart of `modern’ sensing, acquisition, monitoring and diagnostics. What it appears to cover is essentially a digital, addressable, intelligent transducer, system bus and data collection network – pretty fundamental stuff, isn’t it? Scrutinising the patent documentation’s `Disclosure of the Invention’, you find yourself reading about something hardly more tightly defined than, well, that.

And, although it describes the preferred transducer as a vibratory wire strain gauge, it goes on to mention, by example, `accelerometers, inclinometers, thermometers, fluid or gas pressure and composition measuring devices, etc’. What more is there?

And, if you’re thinking it must be limited by industrial applicability, forget it. Although the patent is certainly centred on structural monitoring, it states quite clearly `that the invention is not limited to the specific features shown, since the means and construction herein disclosed comprise but a preferred form of putting the invention into effect’.

It’s really quite extraordinary. Clearly the patent exists -and apparently has done so in the US since 1986 and in Europe since the late `80s. Yet it begs so many questions. Was no one aware of it? Why has it not, to my knowledge, ever come to light before?

What, if it’s upheld, are the cost implications for makers of HART-based devices? What will happen to the fieldbus efforts? Indeed, what about the whole gamut of smart transducers and transmitters developed, manufactured and sold in their 10s of thousands to OEMs, system integrators and ultimately to end users the world over?

EP 0 325 592 B1 could yet rock a veritable host of companies that might yet be argued to be just as in breach as Monitoring Systems is alleged to be. This could bring even the process big boys to their knees. If they’re not worried now, maybe they should be?