Innovation


Seeing the light.

22 January 2021

Mercedes-Benz has always been synonymous with innovation. We met with Urs Böhme, one of the company’s most committed inventors.

Innovation


Seeing the light.

22 January 2021

Mercedes-Benz has always been synonymous with innovation. We met with Urs Böhme, one of the company’s most committed inventors.

Urs Böhme at the Mercedes-Benz site in Böblingen, Germany

Developer Urs Böhme has more than 100 patents to his name and a further 40 in the pipeline. Image: Daimler.

An ordinary Mercedes-Benz development office in Böblingen, Germany: reference books are stacked high in one corner of the room while a filter coffee machine awaits use in the other. Cables, boards, family photos and potted plants lie in between. Urs Böhme’s desk stands in the middle. “One of my colleagues fetched this lamp when they heard we were having company,” he says.

The lamp is attached to Böhme’s monitor: a light bulb with arms and legs. The reference to Gyro Gearloose’s Little Helper is clear, even for someone not familiar with the Donald Duck comics. “I always switch it on whenever I have an idea”, says Böhme and smiles. The lamp has lit up twice in just the last week alone.

What is worth patenting?

A light bulb with arms and legs

Behind this lamp is the bright mind of Urs Böhme, a developer at Mercedes-Benz. Image: Daimler.

Böhme had had brainwaves before the lamp ever made its way into his office. The statistics from the German Patent and Trade Mark Office count 104 patents in his name, with a further 40 in the pipeline.

He can still remember the first patent that he ever filed. It was in 2011, shortly after he had switched to his current department, Power Electronics Pre-Development. “At first my idea seemed too ‘small’ to me – I wasn’t sure whether it was worth patenting at all. My colleagues had to convince me.”

They did the right thing, as Böhme’s first piece of work was listed in the patent register under the title “Method and Device for Discharging a Current-Carrying Coil”. In layman’s terms, the title means splitting the electricity in a current-carrying coil and rerouting it to a capacitor if an electric car is defective. This reduces the stored energy, and the motor quickly loses torque and turns off.

This example shows that today, it’s mostly not a question of revolutionary inventions — it’s all about details and small improvements.

Time magazine even spoke of a “Boring Age” with regard to inventions, with there apparently being no revolutionary innovations on the horizon. Yet, as Carl Benz attested back in 1920, “The car is fully developed. What else is there to come?” Today, we know there was plenty more innovations to come. Just think of the the crumple zone, anti-lock braking system (ABS) or Electronic Stability Program (ESP).

Sustainable inventions

A century after Carl Benz’s prediction, development departments are anything but “boring”. Especially when it comes to making the car electric. After all, Daimler plans to make the fleet of new Mercedes-Benz cars CO₂-neutral by 2039. The goal is to have plug-in hybrids and purely electric vehicles account for more than half of Mercedes-Benz car sales within just ten years.

Böhme is a driving force behind sustainable transport and concepts for promoting electric drive systems. “This radical change is of course very exciting for people who work with batteries, wiring systems and semiconductors”, he enthuses.

Ideas about sustainability, resource conservation and recycling made their mark on him when he was a young man in the 1980s. He is now passing these ideas onto his three children, who seem receptive, if a drawing by daughter, Daniela, on his desk is anything to go by. It depicts a car driven by a super-sized wind turbine. “She often asks when I’ll finally have her sketch patented”, he says with a smile.

Tinkering certainly runs in the family. Böhme, whose parents are both engineers, accompanied his mother to university lectures when he was just four years old. “I don’t think anything back then caught on except where the toyshops around campus were located. Nevertheless, technology always had a big presence in our home”, Böhme reminisces. His role model was his grandfather, Karl Rudolf Böhme, who in his day filed paperwork on about 50 patents, including a prototype for the audio cassette.

2,100 ideas per year

As far wide of the mark as Carl Benz may have been with his prediction about the completion of the automobile, he ultimately proved right in declaring, “The love of inventing never ends.” The thousands of invention reports that circulate through Daimler Brand & IP Management GmbH & Co. KG (or “Daimler IP” for short) each and every year are a testament to this. The company is responsible for Daimler’s intellectual property in the form of patents, marks and designs. There were over 4,500 invention reports written up across the Group in 2019 alone.

The ideas for these patents don’t just come from the company’s developer teams and think tanks. Theoretically, each of the roughly 300,000 Daimler employees around the world is invited to contribute their ideas. But does every idea become a patent? Ingo Brückner, who is responsible for powertrain, e-drive and vehicle safety at Daimler IP, shakes his head: “Last year approximately 2,100 ideas made it from the invention report to patent filing,” he says. “An important criterion for success is a specific technical solution to a problem.”

Keeping track of the patent landscape and current state of technology is not an easy task within a company, let alone across the entire world. Böhme has experienced this firsthand: “It’s of course disappointing if someone got to it faster. However, that also shows my idea was on the right track.”

But Böhme seems never to be far off base, with about 40 patents being filed in his name in 2019 alone. Yet where does this full-time engineer and devoted family man find all this time for inventing? Böhme says he never knows exactly when an idea will reveal itself. “It might even be on the way to the letter box or during a 14-hour drive to a holiday in Spain, where my in-laws live.”

Spurred on by colleagues

The kitchen table is yet another place where Böhme regularly opens up his laptop as soon as the kids have been tucked in for the night. Occasionally, the work on an invention is a matter of hours, but it can also drag on for several months. Böhme explains, “I rarely submit an invention by myself. Most are developed through teamwork. ‘Could that work? Have you thought about this?’” Often it is a word or phrase from the team that can produce a breakthrough. “And if one of them says, ‘That’ll never work!’, that motivates me all the more”, he explains.

Böhme collaborates particularly closely with his desk neighbour and co-worker André Haspel, who is also the one who brought him the Little Helper lamp. “Urs got me started with inventing. He is like a mentor to me”, says the 24-year-old.

Haspel is another success story, having submitted over 60 invention reports in just his three-and-a-half years in the department. So, why is it that the office is so creative? “Because we are given freedom”, says Böhme and looks towards the third, currently deserted desk in the three-person office. It belongs to his team leader.

Böhme emphasises that the patents are only a “happy by-product” of his job. He spends roughly 80 per cent of his time at his computer creating concepts for suppliers or in meetings with colleagues. A pre-development project for future vehicle platforms has reached a critical stage. The goal of it is the optimum connection of various electric-drive modules. “It’s thrilling play for developers, with new components, innovative circuits and higher voltage classes,” Böhme explains.

The emulator at the Mercedes-Benz development office in Böblingen, Germany

Urs Böhme and his colleagues regularly use the emulator to conduct measurements: “We effectively play electric car in it”, he says. Image: Daimler.

What Böhme enjoys most are the laboratories where he spends the other 20 per cent of his working week, whether it involves soldering of a circuit in the low-voltage lab next door or conducting a measurement in the emulator in the basement. “The emulator is a cross between simulation and real operation. We effectively play electric car in it”, he says.

Invention pays off

Both businesses and inventors stand to profit from the flow of good ideas. In the Innovation Ranking 2016-2019 by the Center of Automotive Management, Mercedes-Benz is listed as the world’s strongest brand for innovation. In addition, US brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance named Mercedes-Benz the world’s most valuable automotive brand at the start of 2020. Strong innovation is an essential factor for this distinction.

And the inventors? Patents give them respect and, moreover, hard cash: legislation requires them to be given a monetary payment, even if they have permanent employment. At Daimler, the individual, lump-sum inventor payment is €1,000 (A$1,610) for each initial patent filed officially. The payment is split if multiple creators are involved in the same invention; for Böhme this is often half a dozen co-inventors.

“If the invention is then actually used, a further €2,500 (A$4,250) will be paid. We check again if a further payment is appropriate four years after usage has started”, explains IP expert Ingo Brückner. “It’s an attractive package for our researchers, developers and creatives.” When asked if he has ever indulged from the inventor payment, Böhme shrugs and responds, “We’re paying off our house – and yes, I’ve bought myself a robot vacuum.”

Something that Böhme is never likely to purchase is an invention robot. Because the transport of tomorrow needs the creativity of people like him today. The urge to question existing things to create new things was summarised aptly by Carl Benz: “Inventing is much nicer than having invented.”

There is no doubt about it, the Little Helper lamp on Böhme’s desk will be lighting up for a long time yet.

By Cornelia Hentschel