Getting an aeronautical company off the ground is a complicated mission that is intrinsically linked to innovation. Its high degree of specialisation leads to the development of high added value products in which the protection of industrial property plays an essential role.
In this industry where companies compete at a global level, Spanish aeronautical companies play a prominent role with a long-standing history. One of these companies is ITP Aero, which has developed a clear strategy and systematic decision-making process to protect its inventions.
The following ABGclients interview will take you straight into the heart of ITP Aero’s Intellectual Property Department, led by Manuel Benito Morales. Buckle up!
What is ITP Aero? What do you do?
ITP Aero is an aeronautical engine company. We manufacture propellers, turbojets and turbofans for both civil and military aircraft, helicopters, and others, and we are a corporate entity within the Rolls-Royce Group that has organisational autonomy in 5 countries: Spain, Mexico, India, Malta and the United Kingdom.
In 2019, ITP achieved a turnover of over 1 billion USD. Our sales are divided as follows: 11% corresponds to the so-called in-service support (engine maintenance) and the remainder accounts for design, development and manufacture for defence (14%) and for civil aviation (75%).
How did ITP come about and how has it evolved?
ITP was founded in 1989 and was closely linked to the well-known Eurofighter defence programme, the engine of this aircraft being the EJ200. From there, ITP made a great effort to become a technological company capable of starting from scratch and working to obtain an end product. Shortly after, ITP began to make engine parts for civil aviation, sometimes only manufacturing them or designing a part of them and doing so on a smaller scale.
We slowly acquired the ability to fully design modules inside the engine, such as the low-power turbine. We successfully became a centre of excellence for certain components and in many cases we are at a level where we compete on a global scale. Today, ITP is present in double-aisle, single-aisle, business, freight transport and defence aircraft and helicopters of the leading aviation companies, such as Airbus and Boeing, among others.
What is the role of innovation at ITP Aero? What components or modules do you specialise in?
ITP is currently a Tier 1 supplier in several modules; in other words, we can start from scratch and work all the way up to delivery of the complete package, all while using the global state of the art. In our first engines, we made the so-called externals, which are the components fitted to the external part of the engine, and nozzles, which are the end modules of the engine which discharge the exhaust gases out of the engine and into the environment. Particularly in the latter, we greatly improved our abilities with highly innovative developments that have enabled us to build noteworthy industrial property assets which, in many cases, we have protected and continue to protect with patents.
Later, ITP made a strong commitment to further its knowledge on the innermost modules of the engine, which have greater technological requirements. We successfully became a centre of excellence for low-pressure turbines and radial structures of different aircraft parts, finally entering the area of compressors.
Aeronautics is a particularly innovative sector in which one is always working against the clock to create inventions. Do you monitor your progress?
At ITP Aero, we stay up to date not only with third-party rights, but we also aim to find out what is going on around us.
We have a significant number of professionals who are part of the team and are building their career with a focus on one specific technology. Every year, they each report their findings and they are the Intellectual Property Department’s main eyes and ears in these areas, since they are on the lookout for any innovation in their field.
What benefits are gained from this technology watch?
It for instance allows our research departments to receive advice about the most interesting ways in which they can guide developments. In other cases, this technology watch can also provide an opportunity to enter into licensing agreements that cut costs. Overall, it certainly plays an important role in minimising risks and anticipating changes.
Industrial Property at ITP Aero
ITP Aero’s innovative capacity creates inventions. How important is it for you to protect industrial property?
ITP Aero’s evolution has made it possible to create significant industrial property, and our aim is to properly protect it in order to maintain our competitive advantage and a differentiating factor. Likewise, we seek to ensure that we respect the intellectual property of others.
Your company works at a global level, but do you pay special attention to certain geographical areas when it comes to protecting industrial property?
Our company works for the global market. There is obviously a part of the world that is the most relevant from the point of view of competitors, competitors which are typically Europe, the United States, Canada, China, Russia and Brazil, which is just starting its operations.
ITP’s staff is made up of more than 3,800 employees, which includes 1,100 engineers. Your calculations point to more than 200 thousand hours of R&D every year. How do you manage to stay informed of the inventions created by the different teams and decide which ones need protection?
At the company, we call it innovation identification and it is very important. On the one hand, it allows us to identify something that requires more special protection measures within the company and, on the other hand, it gives us a view from the outside in order to optimise actions and efforts.
How do you identify the inventions that are created at ITP Aero?
There are clearly established, specific moments when we monitor and identify innovations, for example, at the progress control checkpoints of the product projects.
We also organise specific meetings for an Intellectual Property committee and with the different technological departments. Moreover, we have an open mailbox at the Intellectual Property Department for any inquiries, for example, when someone believes that a specific innovation has gone unnoticed or when there are questions about third-party right infringement.
All ITP Aero employees are ultimately integrated in the system in one way or another, although technical directors or head engineers and integrators are obviously more involved. Within the company, we also aim to provide information about the system for protecting industrial and intellectual property through our intranet.
Patent or secret?
How do you decide how to protect this innovation?
For some years now, we systematically follow decision logic. With regards to invention management, when we identify an invention, we first decide on the most appropriate method of protection. To do this, we have to take into account its categorisation, the possibilities of patenting it, if it can be hidden (i.e., if it is easy to hide from competitors), and the feasability of monitoring and litigating in case of infringement.
Based on the answers to these questions, we can choose to either apply for the patent, protect it as trade secret or publish it. In the latter option, the aim is to create a state of the art that prevents a third party from applying for patents in this area which may hinder the innovation. These options are not exclusive, but they are most often combined.
To do all this, internal procedures, instructions and guides are needed. We use templates to make it easier for the team to identify inventions and notify the Intellectual Property Department of them.
What invention categories have you created?
With regards to categorisation, we distinguish between supporting, differential and essential categorisation. We consider an invention to be essential when it is critical for the product, whereas a differential invention, even if innovative, can be replaced.
What do you mean when you talk about hiding inventions? How does this determine the type of protection?
We implement the trade secret policy if we believe that the invention can be hidden from competitors and that no one is conducting research in this area, and they are not going to arrive at it easily or come close to it. However, we often find that inventions are difficult to hide and we often have close, active competitors in the sector. In such a case, we apply the above categories and we distinguish between differential and essential inventions. In both cases, we evaluate whether they can be patented, monitored and litigated. If so, we patent them; but if not, we combine a trade secret and a publication.
When do you decide to apply for patents?
Patents provides exclusivity, but it is important to remember that applying for a patent also implies disclosing an unknown technology to an extent meeting the sufficiency of disclosure patent requirement. This is, in fact, very valuable information. Our aim is to primarily market our own products. In some cases, we also license them, but that is not our main focus.
Secrets do not disclose the invention; however, the major drawback is that they do not provide any protection against reverse engineering.
What is the importance of obtaining a patent grant?
Our goal is not to have patents. Instead, our aim is to create value from an industrial property portfolio and for that reason we believe that it is important to develop an integrated strategy that takes all aspects into account. In fact, our objective is to obtain the best protection and the greatest added value. To do so, we have to actively manage the portfolio which will not only include patents, but also other forms of protection.
In general, do you more often choose to patent or keep inventions secret?
Up until a few years ago, ITP Aero’s general policy was to keep most things secret and occasionally opt for patent protection. Now we seek out the best protection.
In general, we more commonly protect trade secrets and that is why we have taken the trade secret law into careful consideration. This law was published in Spain last.
How does ABG Intellectual Property help you to protect industrial property?
ABG has contributed and continues to contribute in many different ways that allow us to define an efficient and robust internal procedure for protecting our intellectual property, preventing disputes and optimising the creation of added value.
It has provided us with a better understanding of the possibilities of patents and trade secrets in the different countries in which we operate, giving us very useful information about specific laws through general presentations and advice to specific questions.
ABG is also a valued partner when drafting patent applications. Although it is not the only company that we work with on this matter, we are very pleased with our collaboration thus far.