NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Directorate for Social, Behavioral
and Economic Sciences
NSF 99-343 April 22, 1999
by Lawrence M. Rausch
International Patenting Trends in
Manufacturing Technologies: Robots
Over the five-year period 1990-94, Japan ranks number one in robot technology patent activity.
The United States had the most highly cited robot inventions of the six nations examined.
This report is the first in a three-part series that examines America’s technological position vis-à-vis that of five other countriesJapan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and South Koreain high-tech areas likely to be important to future economic competitiveness. The areas examined are advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, and advanced materials; the indicator used to determine a country’s relative strength and interest in these areas is international patent activity. To facilitate patent search and analysis, the three broad areas are each represented by a narrower subfield. This report examines robot technologies as a proxy for advanced manufacturing technologies.
As used here, robot technology covers program-controlled manipulatorse.g., the manipulator, program control, gripping heads, joints, arm sensors, safety devices, and accessoriesand excludes non-program-controlled manipulators, prosthetic devices, and toy robots.
The analysis is built around the concept of a patent family which consists of all the patent documents published in different countries associated with a single invention. The first application filed anywhere in the world is the priority application: it is assumed that the country in which the priority application was filed is the country in which the invention was developed. Similarly, the priority year is the year the priority application was filed. The basic patent is the first patent or patent application published in any of the roughly 40 countries covered in the database used (the Derwent World Patents Index Latest).
International patent families are used to mitigate bias introduced by national systems, such as Japan’s, that encourage large numbers of domestic patent applications. An international patent family is created when patent protection is sought in at least one other country besides that in which the earliest priority application was filed.
The three indicators used in this assessment are overall trends in international inventive (patenting) activity, highly cited inventions, and the size of international patent families.
International Patenting Activity
The conventional perception of Japan as an innovator in the area of advanced manufacturing techniques is reinforced by the large number of robotic inventions originating there. Japan led all other countries studied in the total number of international patent families in robot technology created during the 1990-94 period. Japanese inventors held 43 percent of the total number of international patent families formed by the six countries included in the study, followed by the United States (24 percent), Germany (16 percent), France (9 percent), the United Kingdom (4 percent) and South Korea (3 percent).
Over the five-year period 1990-94, Japan ranks number one in robot technology patent activity; however, this activity dropped dramatically after 1992. At about the same time, U.S. activity picked up: in 1994, the United States led Japan in the number of international robot technology patent families formed.
Although South Korea’s share of international patent families was the lowest overall, its share approached that of the larger and more advanced economy of the United Kingdom. Given its newly industrialized economy status, South Korea’s over-all international inventive activity in this technology area is noteworthyespecially when the data show that South Korea’s robot technology patenting activity equaled that of the United Kingdom in 1994.
Highly Cited Robot Inventions
The United States led the group with 55.6 percent of all highly cited robot technology international families generated during the 1990-94 period (10 of 18). Japan, with 33.3 percent of the highly cited patents, and Germany, with 11.1 percent, trailed distantly (table 1). The United Kingdom, France, and South Korea did not have any international robot families in the highly cited group.
Only the United States had more highly cited international patent families than might be expected2.3 timesbased on its level of activity (that is, the total number of U.S. international robot technology families). Specifically, Japan produced only 80 percent of what might be expected based on the number of inventions it produced during this period, and Germany produced only 70 percent of what might be expected. Again, France, the United Kingdom, and South Koreawith nearly 300 international robot patent families among themhad no highly cited robot inventions during this period.
The United States thus appears to have contributed a disproportionate number of important robot inventions relative to its level of inventive activity.
Average International Patent Family Size
Summary of U.S. Position
Claus, P., and P.A. Higham. 1982. “Study of Citations Given in Search Reports of International Patent Applications Published Under the Patent Cooperation Treaty.” World Patent Information 4: 105-9.
Mogee Research & Analysis Associates. 1997. Comparing Assessments of National Position in Key Science & Technology Fields. Report prepared under National Science Foundation SGER Grant No. SRS-9618668. Washington, DC.
Narin, F., K. Hamilton, and D. Olivastro. 1997. “The Increasing Linkage Between U.S. Technology and Public Science.” Research Policy 26, No. 3 (December): 317-30.
National Critical Technologies Review Group. March 1995. National Critical Technologies Report. Washington, DC.
Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). 1995. National Critical Technologies Report. Washington, DC: National Critical Technologies Panel.
. 1997. Science & Technology Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President.
Popper, S., C. Wagner, and E. Larson. 1998. New Forces at Work: Industry Views Critical Technologies. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
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 These data were developed under contract for the National Science Foundation by Mogee Research & Analysis Associates and cover the period 1990-94; they were extracted from the Derwent World Patents Index Database published by Derwent Publications, Ltd. The technology areas selected for this study met several criteria:
- Each technology appeared on the lists of “critical” technologies deemed important to future U.S. economic competitiveness or national security (see Mogee 1991; OSTP 1995; and Popper, Wagner, and Larson 1998).
- Each technology could be characterized by the output of patentable products or processes.
- Each technology could be defined sufficiently to permit construction of accurate patent search strategies.
- Each technology yielded a sufficient population for statistical analysis.
 The data used here include all international patent families with priority application dates from 1990-94 with eight or more citations. The citation counts are those placed on European Patent Office (EPO) patents by EPO examiners, as the EPO citations are believed to be a less biased and broader source of citation than those of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. See Claus and Higham (1982). To adjust for the advantage countries with large numbers of international families would have on this indicator, a country’s share of highly cited patents is divided by its share of total patent families.
 Operationally, this means counting the number of countries in a family in which a patent publication (a published patent application or an issued patent) exists. Patents in each family are weighted by an index based on the gross domestic product (GDP) in purchasing power parities at current U.S. dollars of the patent country. The index runs from 0 to 1.00, and U.S. GDP is set at 1.00.
 Using international patent families as the unit of comparisonas is done herereduces this bias. Because of its market size, the United States attracts most commercially important inventions and is likely to be a member of many of the international patent families included in this indicator.