People at FP

September brought tears and cheers for and with Ralf Kubatzki. He is one of the veterans at FP and goes by the name “Master of Patents”. During his time with FP alone, he obtained more than 100 patents for FP as the employee in charge and even 24 own patents as a private inventor, both national and international. FP waves goodbye to Ralf Kubatzki with a smile and a heavy heart, we are proud to have counted on him as a valuable FP team member, grateful for his professional commitment and humorous ways in our team and wish him all the best for his future.

Editor’s note: We conducted the interview with Ralf Kubatzki back in autumn 2018. After 26 years as FP’s patent assessor, Ralf will be leaving us for good at the end of 2019. He is succeeded by Jan Schrick, our experiences patent engineer and solicitor, whose many years of working with Ralf has made him an expert in all patent-related matters and processes at FP.

On the inventor’s footsteps

Ralf Kubatzki about his daily work as FP’s patent assessor, the stream of ideas and creative discussions

Ralf Kubatzki - Patent Assessor at FP

Mr Kubatzki, the word is that you know it all. Is that right?

Well, I pretend to know everything. That just comes with the job. As FP’s patent assessor, the patent examinations occasionally required me to attend an oral hearing, where I was cross-examined by up to three examiners. It takes confidence and rock-solid conviction, even if your own knowledge of the details is fairly limited. It’s pretty much the same situation as in job interviews. You are allowed to put on a bit of a poker face.

So poker is your best gambit?

Yes, it is. That’s pretty much all I am good at.

But it appears to have served you well for many years. So, what exactly are you doing in your job?

Where to begin? Let’s start in the early Middle Ages. Back in those days, the rulers in Italy gave prominent inventors the right to build a certain product for some time and to sell that product while at the same time barring everyone else from doing the same. They were allowed to keep the profits they made from their inventions. This was the foundation for the patent system, which initially developed in England in the 18th century. The USA followed suit, while Germany took a bit longer until the 19th century. In our modern days, inventors are called developers, and that was the job advertised by Francotyp. I saw an opportunity and sent in my application. Back in those days I worked as a patent attorney, but the long hours in this job made me look for new opportunities.

Did you also put on a poker face during your job interview?

Well, it was clear that English skills are essential in this job. But I also claimed to know Russian - which of course nobody doubted in light of my roots in former East Germany - along with French, but in reality I only took a couple of evening lessons. But then the interview turned to technical things. And here my knowledge was up to scratch - after all I did apply for a developer job to get away from all the paperwork. But the company was also in need of someone to work on patents and ended up hiring me. Someone else got the nice developer job. I was able to tell them things they didn’t know, for example the many patents the company already had, a large number of them already back in those days.

And that number has in the meanwhile increased to 2,500 patents.... When I started with the company, there was a plethora of ideas sitting there to be worked on. For each of these ideas, it had to be assessed whether filing a patent was actually worth the effort. Because new stuff was constantly added to this stream of ideas, working through it all took us until the turn of the millennium. But since then, we are up to speed. The first priority is to make everything as secure as possible, in concrete terms that means filing a patent for everything and then keep the protection going for as long as necessary. If something is outdated, we will let it lapse and simply file a new patent.

Having a patent for everything - is that the reason behind the impressive number of 2,500 patents?

Well, FP has been around for long time, the company is approaching its centennial anniversary. Before I joined the company, they had a patient assessor who limited his written submissions in patent examinations to following whatever the examiner said. But you will never get a patent done with this strategy, because examiners always want to be on the safe side and simply say: If you can't prove the opposite, then this is not a patent. So blindly following the examiner is a dead-end road. To be successful, you have to engage the examiner’s arguments. And this is precisely what I did. Back in the early years of the millennium, the company had a generous bonus scheme that greatly stimulated creativity. But by now, we have so many patents that we had to reduce the bonus a little bit and introduce a new rule for ideas, which includes us taking a very close look at what the patent is about - simply because not everything is of the same value. There are fundamental inventions, advanced developments and, as a third category, extensions. If we have, for example, a pencil and attach a rubber to its end, making a pencil with an eraser function, you could file for an extension, provided it has not been seen anywhere else in the world before. But that particular thing already exists.

Ralf Kubatzki - Patent assessor at FP and Jan Schrick, patent engineer and in-house lawyer

In addition to your own patents, are you also following the inventions of competitors?

Yes, this is indeed very important: I also monitor the inventions made in other companies. If necessary, I consult with our developers on whether and when we need to take action in response to intellectual property rights infringements. It is always possible that the patent office makes an error in granting a patent to a competitor, and it is then necessary to object against it and present suitable evidence.

Is it true that most of FP's 2500 patents are extensions?

Yes, fundamental inventions are very rare, they probably happen once every 50 years. Most of the time, something already existing is developed further. When I started with the company 26 years ago, we had the first electronic franking machine, the EFS made by Francotyp. At the same time, our sister company Postalia, which was based in Offenbach back in those times, developed the new electronic franking machine NEF. This machine was essentially the same thing as ours, the difference was only in the detail - so it was not a fundamental invention. The companies then merged and the EFS was put on the market. This machine was capable of handling 12,000 letters per hour, which was pretty fast. But there are very few major companies in Germany that had a need to handle that many letters. Our country is dominated by small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) that need a smaller machine, which is why our EFS was fitted with a microprocessor for electronic controlling. But the printing was initially still done using a print roller. We now use a contactless inkjet process. The printhead does not come into contact with the letter at all. This is how our customers want it.

Ralf Kubatzki - Patent Assessor at FP

So the customer's preferences take priority?

Of course. You see, today we use a touch screen display to operate the franking machines, just like we know from our modern mobile phones. But before that, we had buttons, just like on a TV remote control. There's no question that the buttons serves the purpose, a touchscreen is not essential. But the customer wants a touchscreen because this is what they are used to from smartphones and it does allow for intuitive operation of the machine. Such a display is a fairly obvious solution, but no one else did it before us. We were the first company to introduce this feature in franking machines. And it is set to continue this way in the future, there will be many smaller patents that allow us to do our customers a favour. After all, they are the ones who have to work with the machines, so we are happy to accommodate their preferences.

Do you sometimes take a customer request to the developers and ask them to come up with an idea?

I do sometimes ask them about what’s in their trash bin that I might file a patent for - they come up with new ideas all the time and then abandon them, even though they are frequently useful. You do have to stay on top of it, the inventors are not always forthcoming. They are also frequently one step further with their ideas and always come up with something new, which can make them forget their earlier developments. I always have to remind them to put everything on paper.

Do you discuss the new ideas with your colleagues?

That’s the good thing about working in a company! The inventor is always close by, you can always bother him with questions. This close cooperation is important and sometimes leads to highly creative discussions. These discussions not only assist me in filing a patent, but also help the inventor, who may come to a much better understanding of his own invention. You have to wrap an idea in suitable words and express yourself very clearly, so that the examiners can understand everything in minute detail.

Precise language plays a role in making inventions?

In the end, it is me who is responsible for precision. We have some developers who won’t say a single word all day, programmers for example. If you ask them what exactly they have programmed, they are often hard-pressed to put it into words. They may be able to produce a technical drawing or write some software code, which is essentially a sequence of ones and zeros. And that’s their job. But they may find it difficult to describe it clearly and precisely.

Could that be a generational issue?

You know, we have so many great people here at FP coming up with fresh ideas all the time. They are in their early 30s and think differently, much faster. The missing ingredient is experience and a good project manager - success depends on the right mix. Experience in itself is however nothing to be proud of. Experience just comes with time, there’s no active component in it. Look, each new year adds to my age and experience simply builds up over time. There’s no credit to be claimed here, it simply happens.

Ralf Kubatzki - Patent assessor at FP and Jan Schrick, patent engineer and in-house lawyer
Farewell to Ralf Kubatzki