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Friday, 2 March 2018

Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What indications for the future on the basis of patent activity?

The EPO published in December 2017 a report titled, “Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution” (available here). The report looks into the new era of technological development, characterised by digitalisation and the storage and management of big data,  what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), or Industry 4.0. The goal of the report is to provide a first cartography of this dynamic technological field on the basis of patent activity (based on data available until 2016). 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution 

The term Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)  describes technology that allows the full integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the context of manufacturing and as applied to  such areas as personal, home, vehicle, enterprise and infrastructure.  4IR allows the combined use of digitisation, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, which allows  connectivity between smart objects, thereby enabling autonomous operation. 

Smart objects are able to receive and use massive data sets (big data), store enormous quantities of data, and extract value from them. By means of this new technology, vast amounts of data may be used, inter alia,   to interpret patterns, draw conclusions, and provide diagnosis.  What is also new under the 4IR is  that technology progresses, by means of developments in the field of software innovation,  with hardware components playing only a secondary role. 
Awaiting the 4IR...

The EPO report

The EPO report provides a cartography of 4IR patent applications. The total of patent applications related to the 4IR filed between 1978 and 2016 are 48,069 with 5.000 having been  filed in 2015 and 2016. Although patent applications in the field are growing, they still represent a limited percentage of all European patent applications (only 3,3%). The number of applications that have been filed regarding artificial intelligence applications (83 in 2016) and 3D systems (44), remains relatively modest, but applications in these two areas are increasing at a fast rate. 

Different fields of application: Smart health

One of the 4IR areas identified by the report as  growing most quickly is  smart health, which is  expected to exceed 200 billion US dollars in sales  by 2020 with a predicted annual growth rate of more than 20% per year until 2020. In particular, the mobile health sector (including the use of mobile devices, mobile phones, patient monitoring devices and personal digital assistance) is set to increase by 41% per year. One of the most important 4IR applications in smart health is real-time monitoring. Such technology allows the real-time monitoring of patients outside clinical settings (devices that allow doctors to follow chronically ill patients, providing  an alert should the patient present warning signs).

 Another important application identified in the report is the storage and processing of a patient’s medical and social data. Data concerning medical history, previous diagnoses and socio-economic issues of relevance can be bundled into an electronic health record valuable in providing further treatments as well as for the prevention of  harmful drug prescriptions. In this respect, blockchain technology may also be used in order to provide for an easy and secure way of storing and managing medical data. Personalised medicine, where individual differences (genetic and others) are taken into consideration in diagnostics or drug subscription is another important application. Also, computer-aided surgery is developing rapidly, with robot-based surgery becoming more and more independent of human intervention.

Countries and patent applicants

One of the most interesting (although perhaps expected) conclusions of the Report is that patent activity in the field of 4IR is concentrated both with regards to the commercial actors behind the patent applications as well as  the  countries of origin of the patents. The increase of patent applications is driven by a limited number of applicants-- 25 applicants account for 48% of all patent applications filed in the EPO. With regards to the countries dominating the 4IR market, Europe, USA and Japan are the leaders, with a material presence also by Chinese and Korean-based inventions. European inventors are responsible for 30% of the applications filed with the EPO. In Europe, on a national level, Germany and France are the most important European innovation centres for 4IR technologies.


4IR patent activity accelerates more quickly than any other field of technology.  It represents a technology with the broadest interdisciplinary profile with applications in different market sectors, from transportation to additive production and health care. The expected increasing diversity of the fields of applications might make it more difficult to monitor future patent activity. In any event, the prognosis for  the commercial value of 4IR referred to in the EPO report is a clear indication of the expected patent activity in the field.

 Industry 4.0 calling Patent 2.0.  

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