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As the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) materialises, it's not just our factories that are getting smarter - it's our hospitals, homes, appliances, cars, and wearable devices too. In 2019, digital communication became the new leading field of patent applications at the EPO while computer technology was the second fastest growing. These two technical fields are enabling 4IR by providing the tools for turning technical applications in other fields into smart devices. They are also powering further developments in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G.
Looking deeper into these fields questions arise: What development trends are behind the surge? Which regions do the applications come from? And who are the key players?
Digital communication is a technology field1 straddling telecommunications and computers, with countless technical applications. Inventions in this area - whether mobile networks or the internet - make it possible for us to stay connected, work efficiently, and live safer and healthier lives. In 2019 patent applications in this field at the EPO rose sharply (+20%).
The upswing in digital communication was driven by an increase from several countries with large volumes of patent applications, in particular from China (+65%), the US (+15%) and South Korea (+36%). Filings from the EPO member states developed comparatively moderately, yet from a high level.
Europe is both an attractive market for other actors and an actively innovating region. This is underlined by the share of patent applications in digital communication: EPO member states, the US and China each filed approximately one quarter of all applications in the field.
Drilling deeper into the digital communication field, two high-growth areas stand-out: transmission of digital information, and wireless communication networks.
US applicants filed almost one third of all applications in transmission of digital information, followed by EPO member states (27%) and China (24%).
In wireless communication networks, China's 30% share of applications led EPO member states at 23% and the US (21%).
Wireless communication networks are important enablers for 5G and its faster data speeds, reduced lag time, and increased density for smart devices. Within wireless communication networks, there was a notable increase in patent applications related to wireless resource management, resource allocation and scheduling. Resource allocation is the mechanism to intelligently manage and allocate radio network resources among consumers - such as mobile subscribers.
Many of the same companies are competing in both transmission of digital information and wireless communication networks. Of the top ten applicants, eight companies appear on both lists, representing a robust mix of applications from Europe, the US and Asia.
As 4IR gains further traction, it is unsurprising that computer technology, too, experienced a sharp rise in patent applications at the EPO in 2019. There are, however, new developments: growth in this area is being driven by various industries, and not all players are IT firms. Logistics companies, automotive industry suppliers and medical firms are in the game, with innovation in security, medical imaging, and traffic control contributing to the increase in computer technology patent applications.
With a patent application increase of 10%, computer technology was the second fastest growing technology field at the EPO in 2019.
The growth was mainly driven by patent applications coming from China (+19% increase over 2018), the US (+14%) and also from EPO member states (+9%).
The share of patent applications in Computer Technology has remained relatively steady over five years, with the bulk of applications coming from the US and EPO member states.
Exploring fields within computer technology, a picture begins to emerge. The boundaries between fields are starting to blur, for example, with medical firms developing machine learning technology for better diagnoses. Or logistics companies improving image processing to allow machines to better identify, pack, and inventory items in a warehouse. Automakers are entering the realm of IT firms by inventing smart technologies to facilitate the transition to autonomous driving.
Three sub-fields in particular - machine learning and pattern recognition; image data processing and generation; and data retrieval - are contributing to the increasing number of patent applications in Computer Technology.
Machine learning and pattern recognition has grown substantially over the past five years. Between 2018 and 2019, the EPO recorded a 29% overall increase in patent applications in this field. In data retrieval, the Office received 4% more patent applications in 2019 compared to the previous year. Applications in image data processing and generation have also spiked. From 2018 to 2019, the field received 11% more patent applications.
In machine learning and pattern recognition, patent filings from EPO member states alone grew by 55% and had the largest share of applications (41%), ahead of the US (24%). European firms were among the leading applicants with three companies - Bosch, Siemens and Philips - placing in the top ten.
In image data processing and generation, the largest share in patent applications again came from EPO member states (38%) and the US (27%). Philips and Siemens were the top ranked companies in this field, once again demonstrating the strong role Europe plays in developing new technologies.
In data retrieval, applicants from the US led in terms of share (48%), while EPO member states (23% share) continue to steadily innovate in this field. The top applicants represent diverse technology areas spanning medical, logistics, semiconductors, mobile devices and imaging.
While these data show the very strong position of Asian and US firms in the competition for leadership in key digital technologies, they also highlight the innovative potential of European technology firms that are standing their ground in a number of fast-growing areas. The fields of digital communication and computer technology both clearly constitute a "toolbox" for technical applications and innovations in most of the other top ten technology fields at the EPO. These in their turn form a large part of the industrial sectors in which the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are being deployed and which were already the subject of a patent landscaping study carried out by the EPO in 2017. In order to keep track of these developments the EPO will issue a new version of the study later this year.
Data source: European patent
1 The definition of the fields is based on the WIPO IPC technology concordance. The table is available at: http://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/ipstats/en/statistics/patents/xls/ipc_technology.xls.
2 European patent applications include direct European applications and international (PCT) applications that entered the European phase during the reporting period.
3 The geographic origin is based on the country of residence of the first applicant listed on the application form (first-named applicant principle). In cases where several applicants are mentioned on the application form, the country of residence of the first applicant listed applies.