Feb. 16--Hawaii inventors chalked up a record number of patents last year for a diverse array of creations ranging from a high-tech medical imaging device to a hydraulic ripper blade used to demolish old fuel tanks.
The 288 patents awarded to local residents in 2013 broke the previous year's record of 231 patents issued, according to data available on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. Hawaii patent awards have averaged about 160 per year over the past decade.
It was another good year for research and development teams at some of Hawaii's high-tech companies and the University of Hawaii. Researchers at UH received 10 patents, the most of any local entity. Oceanit Laboratories Inc., an engineering, science and research firm, topped the list of Hawaii-based private corporations with four patents.
In addition, there were dozens of patents awarded to Hawaii-based inventors for work they did for mainland technology companies, including Apple, International Business Machines and Sony.
But there were also a number of patents with a more industrial flavor.
Tajiri Lumber was recognized by the Patent and Trademark Office for a hydraulically operated ripper tool that company executives created on short notice after winning a bid to tear down five huge steel tanks at a military fuel storage facility in Pearl City. Under the specifications of the contract, Tajiri would not be allowed to use cutting torches as part of the demolition process, said Keith Tajiri, who helps run the family business.
In previous fuel tank demolitions, Tajiri work crews would use a cutting torch to open holes in the tanks to provide access points for workers who would cut the tanks apart using hydraulic shears mounted on the arm of an excavator. The work was tedious, and it could take four or five days to bring down a fuel tank, said Kenny Tajiri, Keith's brother and an equipment operator for the company.
When it became apparent they would have to figure out another way to demolish the fuel tanks, Raymond Tajiri, company co-founder and father of Keith and Kenny, came up with the idea of using a massive steel cutting blade mounted on the arm of an excavator. The elder Tajiri envisioned using the blade to punch holes in the half-inch-thick wall of the fuel tanks and then with a downward motion slice the sides of the tanks into strips.
Kenny was at the controls of the excavator for the trial run of the ripper blade.
"I had doubts. I didn't think it was going to work," he said. "But when we got there, it turned out to be a piece of cake."
Instead of four days, it took only four hours to level the first fuel tank. And because the ripper blade had cut the tank walls into strips, it was relatively easy to snip them crosswise into pieces that could be easily loaded into a dump truck, Kenny added.
On the recommendation of the company's board of directors, Raymond and Kenny applied for patents covering both the ripper blade itself and the method they used to demolish the tanks. They received the method patent in 2009 and the device patent last February.
Raymond Tajiri died in August at age 87. During his more than 50 years at the company, he was constantly coming up with innovative ways to solve problems as they would present themselves, Keith said.
"That's how my father is. You cannot tell him something is 'no can.' He can always find a way to do it. What he taught us -- there is no school for that," Keith said.
Leighton Chong, the Honolulu-based patent attorney who represented the Tajiris, said the next step is for the company to license the rights to the ripper blade technology to other demolition companies.
Many entrepreneurs in Hawaii underestimate the importance of protecting their intellectual property rights, Chong said.
There is a trend among startup companies trying to get off the ground to use crowd funding to raise capital, but reaching out to potential investors via the Internet can have its risks, he said.
"It doesn't project your
intellectual property. If you promiscuously brainstorm with people in a public setting, you could get into all kinds of conflicts," Chong said.
More established technology companies like Oceanit, by contrast, strive to protect their intellectual property rights.
Oceanit has been one of Hawaii's most successful companies in licensing the rights to its technological developments. Oceanit
and its spinoffs have been awarded roughly 40 patents since the company was founded in 1985. The company has another 20 patent applications in the pipeline.
Last year's Oceanit patents included ones with medical, defense, energy and construction industry applications.
Oceanit researchers used nanotechnology to improve the fire retardancy of a new type of construction material called foam-based glass fiber reinforced concrete. The material is gaining in popularity in the building industry because it is light and strong, said Ian Kitajima, Oceanit's director of corporate development.
"It's like a surfboard, but instead of covering the foam core with fiberglass and resin, the GFRC covering is reinforced concrete," Kitajima said.
One of the concerns, however, is the flammability of the foam core. By infusing the concrete with fire-retardant nanoparticles, Oceanit was able to increase the fire retardancy of the product to a minimum of three hours, up from the normal rating of 15 minutes, according to the patent.
Most of the Hawaii patents were awarded under the utility category, which the Patent Office defines as for a "new and useful process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof."
However, there were an above-average number of design patents issued, which are for "a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture," according to the Patent Office.
Shin Nishibori, an industrial designer who moved to Lanikai last year after leaving his job at Apple Inc., was listed along with other Apple employees on 65 design patents the California-based company received for products such as cases, docking stations and earphones for Apple products.
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