Mixing pasta and patents

Industrial–laser–related patents seem to have a mixed history of profitability

Th 97827
Th 97827
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By David A. Belforte

Industrial–laser–related patents seem to have a mixed history of profitability

A recent visit to the newest local restaurant produced an interesting meal–veal and proscuitto over pasta and a surprise flashback. This restaurant, appropriately named Visions, is located in the former American Optical Corporation (AO) complex. Now the site is the South bridge Conference Center and home to a Department of Defense accounting school.

If you're wondering about this odd combination, just remember one word, pork. For the uninitiated, pork is a term used to describe excessive or unnecessary government spending, typically in some legislator's home territory. A combination of Massachusetts legislative clout and, at the time, a friendly administration caused the DOD to turn the complex into a state–of–the art conference center, complete with a full–service hotel to house the students.

After the delicious meal, the center management graciously arranged a tour of the facility for this former AO employee. Interestingly, the new conference center lobby is located just about where the AO Industrial Laser Group had a short run at establishing a business.

Walking through the center and hotel one observes a creative decorating scheme featuring many aspects of AO's history in optical products. Missing was evidence of AO's pioneering work in lasers, notably high–gain and efficiency neodymium laser glass, which became the standard for high–power laser glass in the 1970s.

Thirty years ago, the award of a patent on this glass in a disc laser format was celebrated by commissioning a painting that was exhibited at a trade show in Washington DC. Citing its importance, the possessor of this painting offered it to the conference center management.

Negotiations are underway for proper display of this historical artifact. The current caretaker is not driving a hard bargain. However, being single minded when it comes to industrial lasers and a bit of a gourmet, he is holding out for a prime visual location. A wall in the restaurant would seem appropriate.

What was so important about this glass? Well, without it, it would have been impossible to develop the world's first production–rated Nd:Glass laser. Today we expect solid–state lasers to produce hundreds of hours of stable operation. Back then one million pulses of stable energy was a big thing. So big that Nd:Glass lasers enjoyed enthusiastic market success until subsequent replacement by Nd:YAG lasers.

AO chose to license the patented glass technology, much to the chagrin of its Industrial Laser Group, which found itself competing against the company's patent department for annual contributions to corporate profits.

Contrast this with another corporation's thinking about laser–related patents. This case involved the decision to license the rights to the controlling patent on laser cladding.The issue was whether to inhibit competition or to encourage free use of the technology in hopes of building a market for future systems sales. Choosing the latter route seemed then like a good idea. As it turns out, it really didn't matter because cladding remains a minor application, even today.

Industrial laser patents seem to have a mixed history. Take away the infamous Gould patent, which could have inhibited the growth of the industrial laser market, and what do you have? I can't think of anyone who has made a bundle from a laser patent. Oh yes, there are the potentially stultifying Lemelson patents that may have prevented some non–licensees from practicing materials processing technology. Other than for self–protection, industrial–laser–related patents seem to make money only for the lawyers involved in infringement suits. As one said, "This will put my son through law school." So who needs another lawyer?

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