This decision relates to a European patent application concerning a method for integrated product configuration and production planning. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1835/18 (Integrated product configuration/SIEMENS) of 7.9.2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:
The invention concerns product configuration and production planning. When ordering a complex product, such as cars, customers can usually choose between different configurations, which may translate into complex sets of production requirements and tasks for the producers. In existing approaches, the tasks relating to product and product configuration are conducted in isolation. This may cause duplication, inconsistency, inaccuracy of information flow as well as unverifiable results, because the different tools have their own representation of the knowledge required for their part of the task.
These problems are addressed by the invention by describing the tasks in an abstract language, so as to provide a common input for the different technologies and corresponding tools at use, which are then integrated. The integration includes the automatic translation of the abstract representation of the tasks into a problem-specific representation which can be efficiently handled by a suitable solver, such as binary decision diagrams, satisfiability solvers, rule engines, constraint-based systems. Finally, each task is processed according to the chosen solver.
Figure 1 of EP2996076
Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:
Claim 1 (sole request)
Method for integrated product configuration and production planning by use of a computer program comprising steps of:
– describing the specific tasks of product and production configuration in an abstract language;
– integrating the solver technologies capable of efficient performing the tasks;
– translating the abstract representation of the tasks to a solver specific representation;
– handling the tasks by the chosen solvers.
Is it patentable?
The examining division refused claim 1 of the sole request for a lack of inventive step (Article 56 EPC). The division took the view that the subject-matter of claim 1 was an obvious implementation, on a conventional networked information system, of a set of non-technical steps for carrying out product configuration and planning.
The Board confirmed the decision of the examining division:
7. The Board agrees with the examining division that the steps of claim 1, apart from their computer-based implementation, do not have a technical character, but rather represent a set of non-technical requirements. The level of abstraction of the claim – and indeed of the whole application – is such that there is no connection with any well-defined technical system or specific technical constraints. The “solver technologies” in the second method step are abstract problem-solving algorithms (see in particular the description, page 4, lines 9 to 25, and page 6, lines 25 to 32). No technical information is provided as to how the solvers are integrated (second method step), or how the problem-specific translation (third method step) is achieved. Finally, there is no technical characterisation of the tasks to be executed or of the technical means on which the method is implemented.
8. In the statement setting out the grounds of appeal, the appellant provided an exemplary list, extracted from Wikipedia, of considerations upon which a generic product configuration may be based, such as the availability of standard interfaces, the use of a single or multiple databases for different user groups, the way of communicating with other systems.
9. For technicality to be acknowledged, however, it is not sufficient to argue the potential presence of technical considerations. These must be derivable, in a credible manner, from the claimed subject-matter and, furthermore, there must be a disclosure with sufficient technical details in the application as filed. This is not the case for the application at issue. Even though the skilled person in charge of the implementation will generally make use of a number of technical features, such as appropriate communication interfaces or database architectures, these are neither explicitly included nor inherent in the claimed subject-matter. The mere possibility of a technical embodiment is not sufficient to lend technical character to a general concept.
10. Even though the avoidance or reduction of redundancies and inconsistencies are among the intended effects of the invention, in the Board’s view they are not credibly and objectively derivable from the claimed features, none of which deals – alone or in combination – with the management or storage of data in a database. Moreover, the integration of “solver technologies capable of efficient [sic] performing the tasks” is a mere desideratum, whose implementation is left to the skilled person. It follows that the alleged improvements in computer efficiency and database consistency are entirely speculative.
In the end, the Board judges that the steps of claim 1 do not provide any technical contribution beyond the straightforward implementation on a general-purpose computer. Therefore, claim 1 lacks an inventive step. Hence, the European patent application was finally refused.
You can read the whole decision here: T 1835/18 (Integrated product configuration/SIEMENS) of 7.9.2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01.