Patent attorney ROSIE HARDY explains the thinking behind a newly patented braking system that delivers safety improvements and more
It is not unusual for innovation-led rail businesses to invest millions of pounds each year in developing new products and services for their customers. To make this investment worthwhile, most businesses then pursue patent protection to ring fence their inventions.
One such company is the Wabtec Corporation – a US-owned rail engineering business with a number of business units located in the UK. The multinational has recently reported that it has more than 1,475 active patents worldwide.
Patents have a life span of up to 20 years. This valuable monopoly effectively gives the patent owner a period of exclusivity during which they can establish a market for their innovation
For inventions that have commercial potential in a number of different countries, it is common for businesses to obtain a family of patents around the world. Wabtec has followed this strategy by obtaining a family of patents for its parking brake innovation. This family includes European Patent 2,109,560, which provides protection in the UK and other European countries. The European patent protects a parking brake assembly for making rail vehicle braking systems more secure.
Generally, rail vehicle braking systems use fluid pressure to apply brake shoes against the wheels. In this case, the parking brake assembly includes a fluid-pressureactivated actuator that is connected to a push rod as part of the brake rigging. The actuator includes a novel ratchet and holding pawl mechanism. In response to a reduction in fluid pressure, the holding pawl rotates in a specific rotational direction to engage the ratchet teeth and effectively lock the push rod in position; preventing the brakes from being released inadvertently. However, in response to the increase in fluid pressure, the holding pawl is also able to rotate in a different direction in order to disengage the ratchet teeth so that the push rod is free to move, allowing the brake rigging to be released.
Crucially, the assembly protected by the European patent, is able to maintain a parking brake in the applied position even when the supply of fluid pressure is discontinued. By virtue of being automatically activated upon the loss of fluid pressure, the parking brake assembly is able to eliminate the possibility of operator error in applying the parking brake. This technology also allows the parking brake to be released manually if the fluid pressure is restored. To enhance its market appeal, the system can be retrofitted and used in combination with many existing hand-operated braking systems.
Without patent protection, Wabtec understands that its parking brake innovation could be freely copied by a competitor. As a result, any value the company might have expected to leverage from its R&D investment would be lost.
The improved parking brake technology is a step forward in rail safety and European Patent 2,109,560 is an example of how patent protection is relevant and worthwhile. Patent protection is not limited to revolutionary innovation or reserved for innovators of a certain size – it safeguards research and development and has a business-enhancing effect.