Technologies for quick & easy shopping


I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets annoyed at long checkout queues and unnecessary delays when shopping.  Recently I have been exploring the use of RFID tagging and other technologies to detect items and enable automated purchases.  We are becoming more familiar with the use of smartphones for banking transactions via contactless (NFC) and being connected everywhere we go.  All these technologies are coming together in ways that make our lives easier but at the same time it can be scary and leave us wondering if we are becoming too vulnerable to cyber crime.

Amazon Technology are exploring ways of changing the shopping experience by trialing a “just walk out” system of shopping nicely explained in their video.  I wanted to explore the technologies they were combining to enable this approach and found that a patent application filed about 4 years ago covers a range of the technologies they are testing in their Amazon Go stores.  As usual the patent application is written in broad terms that can be adapted to a number of scenarios and so the terminology refers to a “material handling facility” rather than a shop.

Date: 8 Jan 2015
Abstract:  This disclosure describes a system for automatically transitioning items from a materials handling facility without delaying a user as they exit the materials handling facility. For example, while a user is located in a materials handling facility, the user may pick one or more items. The items are identified and automatically associated with the user at or near the time of the item pick. When the users enters and/or passes through a transition area, the picked items are automatically transitioned to the user without affirmative input from or delay to the user.

The description in the main body of the patent indicates that the technology can have application in stores, warehouses, libraries, museums, rental centres, etc.

Key enabling technologies are RFID tagging of items, image capture, facial recognition, sensors, wireless networks.  Typical scenarios include a user entering a facility and being identified from a tag or smartphone device, selecting items and various methods are described for detecting when an item has been removed from a shelf and placed in a bag, a log of the items chosen is recorded and when the user exits the facility the transaction is completed – which can be that the user is charged for the items and the amount is deducted from their bank account.

It is possible to track the progress of this application in the Global Dossier and I can tell that the original claims have been rejected; revised claims have been submitted which seek to work around the objections made by the patent examiner.

Phil’s Comments

RFID technology is widely used as a tagging method and the cost per tag has come down dramatically in price through the developments in printed electronics.  Direct printing of RFID on packaging is also possible.  Reliable detection of passive RFID (no built in power source) is better than it was and so every item in a full bag of shopping can easily be detected as one passes a sensor.  This application indicates that a whole range of technologies needs to work together seamlessly to get an automated shopping system working.  The reliance on cameras to aid in the detection of users and items picked is actually higher than I expected, but is also reassuring in that it helps to increase security and offset the concerns that the system could be abused.  The Amazon Go shop in Seattle has been running for about 5 months now but is only open to Amazon employees – I will keep an eye open for updates on its progress.

Please contact me if you would like more detailed patent analysis of this technology area.


The High Tech £1 Coin

This week has seen the launch of the new one pound coin which is said to be a lot more difficult to counterfeit, making it the most secure coin in the world.  I was interested to see what technology the Royal Mint might be using and if they have revealed it in any recent patents.  It is always possible that they have kept some of the security measures as trade secrets but sure enough there is a rather large patent family emerging with a priority date in 2010.  These patent applications are now starting to be granted and the most recent is US9567688 granted on 14th February 2017.  Here is a summary:

US9567688: Metallic materials with embedded luminescent particles
Abstract: Formation of an authentication element by deposition of a metal layer with embedded particles on a metal substrate, wherein the embedded particles are
configured to convert energy from one wavelength to another. The embedded particles may be upconverters, downconverters, or phosphorescent phosphors, which can be detected and measured with analytical equipment when deposited in the metal layer. A metal substrate may include coinage.

The patent describes how the metal layers in the coin can be embedded with luminescent particles that under appropriate illumination can be made to emit light of a different wavelength and thereby reveal the authenticity of the coin.  The process for embedding the particles is by electroplating so that the metal salts become bonded to the metal.  The plated metal layers are preferably uniformly distributed with the particles.  For the security features this required a new method of electroplating to avoid the problems caused by the denser nature of the luminescent particles that tended to make them settle on the bottom of the plating bath.  Details of how this was overcome are given in the method.

Detecting the particles is also discussed, the figure 11 below is taken from the patent and the description is taken from the main body of the patent.

FIG. 11 illustrates an example of an authentication system and process 1100 in accordance with embodiments of the present invention. An illumination source 1101 emits a wavelength(s) of energy (e.g., light) 1110 at a metal substrate 1102 with one or more layers having the aforementioned particle(s) (or any other luminescent particles disclosed herein or their equivalents), which then emit energy at a wavelength as detected by an optical detector 1103. The particles may be configured to emit one or more desired wavelengths of energy, which may be at a different wavelength(s) as the excitation energy. A signal processor 1104, and optional display 1105, may be utilized for analyzing the detected signals and for making an authentication determination.



Phil’s Comments

While this patent does not reveal the full details of the new £1 coin it is my guess that some of this technology has gone into the manufacturing process for the coins.  The new £1 coin is bi-metallic – a gold-coloured ring around a silvery core. It is 12-sided, with grooves on every other side, and includes micro-lettering on an inner rim which reflects the year of production. Other detailed surface features include a panel under the Queen’s head which displays either a pound symbol or a “1” digit depending on the angle of view.  The luminescent particles, if present, will mean that the coin will glow in UV light or may emit IR light that can not be detected by eye.  This would certainly enable the coins to be rapidly authenticated electronically as has been suggested by the Royal Mint.  I’ve not seen one of these coins yet but do let me know if you have one and can detect any of these features.



Printed Electronics adds security to your Banknotes

Sipca, a company founded in 1927, provides secured identification, traceability and authentication solutions and services.  A core component of their security expertise is the use of security inks that protect the majority of the worlds banknotes.  I was interested to notice that earlier this year they filed a patent application combining the use of security inks with flexible printed electronics features to further enhance the security aspects of banknotes.


The patent application is WO2016037895, published on 17 March 2016, the inventors being Brahim Kerkar and Philippe Amon.

Most recent(amended) claim 1 is:

A banknote comprising: one or more security features, at least two flexible printed electronic (FPE) elements embedded in the banknote, at least one of the one or more security features and at least one of the at least two FPE elements have an interrelationship with each other, and a plurality of the at least two FPE elements have an interrelationship with each other, characterized in that each FPE element contains one or more security features comprising a chemical key represented with a set of molecules having different absorption or emission spectra, preferably said banknote comprising “n” FPE elements and “m” luminescent compounds, providing n*m potential combinations of secure FPEs dispatched in each banknote.

A typical banknote is shown in Fig 2 above (taken from the patent application) and has a variety of features for added security such as a substrate (0), a flag (10) and security features being a serial number (1 ), value numbers (2; 3) (wherein one of said value number is made of a colorshifting ink), an intaglio printed design (4), patterns made of a luminescent ink (5), luminescent fibers (6) incorporated in the substrate (0); a security thread (7), a transparent window (8) and a hologram (9).

The invention describes a banknote which has at least 2 FPE elements and these are designed to relate to each other and to the other security elements to provide the authentication mechanism.  Various modes of operation are described including the ability for the FPE to be capable of additional features such as being configured to interact, for example, with a computer and/or a mobile phone.

One example provided is if a banknote having added FPE features is stolen, the owner, for example, using a mobile phone already containing the data related to the banknote (e.g., in a storage device) can send a communication to (e.g., all banks around the world), identifying the banknote as stolen, to be sure that the banknote is identified as stolen and/or is no longer valid. In other embodiments, the FPE may be operable to send a signal to the owner’s mobile device when a banknote belonging to the owner is used. Thus, if the banknote is stolen, when the thief attempts to use the stolen banknote, the owner is notified, and can contact the police. The embedded FPE may also provide traceability capabilities for the banknote, so that, for example, a location of the stolen banknote can be determined.

Phil’s Comments:

This is a further example of the way flexible printed electronics can enhance the practical usefulness of everyday things.  The examples here also include security aspects which in itself is a huge technology field for the detection of counterfeiting and theft.  The secret is the ability to make these FPE elements small enough and self contained to work over a long period without the need for a separate power source.  Passive RFID elements are now very common and in everyday use.


Printed Electronics and Spiders

What on earth have spiders got to do with printed electronics?  Well, as is often the case, nature shows us how to do really difficult tasks in quite spectacular ways.  Spiders are well known for their webs, approximately 40,000 species of spider exist many of which produce thin silk fibres spun from pressurized abdominal sacs containing a polymeric solution. These sacs eject tiny jets that dry in-flight to produce the fibres with diameters of approximately 2.5 to 4.0 microns and are used to make the intricate patterned webs we see all around us.  Studying these natural processes has led to the development of microfluidic liquid jet printing and hydrodynamic printing concepts.

A recent patent application US20160129634 was published on 12 May 2016 by inventors David Keicher and Adam Cook of the Sandia Corporation and describes how this process can be used to create very thin inkjets suitable for use in direct printed electronic applications.

JetSummary:  The present invention is directed to an apparatus for two-fluid hydrodynamic printing, comprising a coaxial tube assembly, comprising an inner tube having an exit orifice for flowing an ink stream therethrough and an annular outer tube for flowing a sheath fluid therethrough wherein the sheath fluid has a higher velocity than the ink stream such that the ink stream is hydrodynamically focused by the outer sheath fluid upon exiting from the exit orifice of the inner tube. The apparatus can further comprise a focusing nozzle downstream from the exit orifice of the inner tube for further focusing of the ink stream therein. The apparatus can further comprise means for removing the sheath fluid from the ink stream downstream from the exit orifice of the inner tube and a recirculation channel for recirculating the removed sheath fluid. For example the ink can comprise polyvinylpyrrolidone and the sheath fluid can comprise water, alcohol, or a combination thereof. The focused ink stream can be deposited on a substrate.

Print results using two-fluid hydrodynamic focusing yielded a 30 μm wide by 0.5 μm tall line that suggests that the cross-section of the printed feature from the print head was approximately 2 μm in diameter. Printing results also demonstrated that complete removal of the sheath fluid is not necessary for all material systems. For example, hydrodynamic printing of two fluids enables printing of insulated conductors and clad optical interconnects.

The inventor D. Keicher also has a granted patent US8919899 which describes the same basic principle and in my view is relevant prior art to this application.

Phil’s Comments:

Printed electronics requires some very tight specifications for line width and resolution if the resultant printed tracks are to work reliably and meet the designs required by modern electronic circuits and components.  The conductive tracks often require liquids with specific properties which are not always suitable for inkjet nozzles or the typical methods of ink droplet formation.  The technology described here produces very narrow liquid lines on the substrate and is an interesting alternative for direct printed electronics.


How to generate a Patent Landscape

When you work in a particular technology area it is often useful to understand who else is working on the same technologies and who may be patenting or inventing aspects of the technology.  A patent landscape is the name given to a study of who holds these patents and the detailed understanding of trends in terms of numbers of patents granted; regions where the most patents are filed; understanding prior art and where potential gaps are for working on improvements or new features.  In addition, links between assignees and inventors (in particular any evidence of universities or research centres working with companies) can be very useful for finding collaborators or third parties who may be interested in joint research and development.

There are many organisations that provide this sort of information for a price and will provide a nice visual overview but when you are not really sure exactly what you are looking for it is much better to try out a few searches yourself and explore the landscape so that you know what you are up against and how complicated the landscape might be.

One organisation that provides this type of information together with some analysis is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and, best of all, it is free!  The system is called PATENTSCOPE and is very simple to use.  It can be found at

Let’s now try and get a quick overview of the Internet of Things.  This is a really exciting new technology area where everyday items can connect via the internet to one another and interact in useful ways.

Open the link and in the simple search box type in the phrase “internet of things” using quotes to show that it is a phrase that we want to search on.  Rather than searching just on the Front Page select Any Field as shown below:

Simple Search

Click on search and the results immediately show.

Search results

You can see that there were 8,230 patent documents found from all the databases (by default we searched all the English language databases).  If you click on the Analysis bar it will open up a window where you can see at a glance which countries are filing patents, how many, who the top inventors and applicants are and what the timeline trend looks like.  You can also see the data graphically if you choose the various options in the window.  Some examples are shown below:

analysis view

graph view

The items in the table are all clickable so you can drill down to examine patents from any of the inventors or companies very quickly, or you could examine who first started filing in 2010.

The pie chart can be quite useful to see a breakdown of the main patent classification codes which give some idea of the technology areas covered.  An explanation of IPC and CPC codes can be found here:

pie chart

One problem with the data is that it is not standardised, for example you can see that Samsung appears under different names in the table so that you would need to add these together to get a proper feel for how many of the patent documents are owned by Samsung.  If you do this you find it is over 700, nearly 10% of the total.  Across all the patents you can see that the last 2 years accounts for around 75% of the total number.

If you wanted to explore the data in more detail you are allowed to download the results into an excel spreadsheet (10,000 records is the limit), however, you need to be logged in with a free account to be able to do this.  From the spreadsheet you can unravel a lot more detail about other companies and inventors filing, start to explore trends over time and look at granted patents.  In this dataset for example there are only 2.5% of the US patents actually granted, clear evidence that this is an emerging technology and there is quite a race to get the technology protected by patent rights.

I hope this brief overview has given you some idea of how to get a quick insight into the patent landscape of a particular technology area.  As always, do contact me if you have any questions or want a detailed landscape of your own technology area.

Update on Spray-on Solar PV

In a previous post I reported on a number of patent applications related to transparent solar panel technology that could be manufactured by a spray-on process.  This technology was being developed by Prof Xiaomei Jiang under a research agreement with New Energy Technologies Inc.  This company has now changed its name to Solar Window Technologies Inc. and there is much less evidence of the spray-on approach in their technical information suggesting that they are less confident that spraying will be a viable manufacturing route.

The patent applications have been going through examination and until quite recently there had been no granted patents emerging with the spray-on process as the key manufacturing method.  However, on 4 Aug 2015 the US20130255757 application was granted as US9099605 and as far as I am aware becomes the first granted patent with a spray-on process for PV panels.

Phil’s Comments:

I noticed that the first claim had to be modified before the examiner would allow it.  It has been somewhat narrowed in scope to include a 48h at 60°C heating step for the P3HT and PCBM before spraying multiple layers to a final thickness of between 200 and 300nm.  It was necessary to include this to avoid prior art found in the scientific literature which indicated a spray method but the layer needed to be thicker than 1.2 micron.  Other prior art also made mention of the heating requirements but failed to specify the layer thickness. Similarly, where layer thickness was specified in the prior art, it did not teach the heating steps were essential.


3D Printed Electronics – the next disruptive technology?

A patent application published on the last day of 2014 could easily have gone unnoticed but I believe it could be one of the next major breakthroughs in printed electronics.  The application has the title PRINTED THREE-DIMENSIONAL (3D) FUNCTIONAL PART AND METHOD OF MAKING and can be viewed by clicking on the link: WO2014209994.  The technology has been developed in the Research labs of Professor Jennifer Lewis at Harvard University.  The Lewis Lab team have been working for some years on multiple technologies including 3d printing, conductive inks for printed electronics, composite materials and micro-batteries.   This patent application describes various embodiments of a 3D functional part, for example one of the paragraphs states:

A method of printing a 3D functional part comprises, according to another embodiment: forming one or more portions of a 3D structure using a 3D printing method; positioning at least one functional electronic device on an exposed surface of the one or more portions; and forming conductive interconnects to and from the at least one functional electronic device using a 3D printing method. The method may further comprise, in some embodiments, forming one or more additional portions of the 3D structure using a 3D printing method. The one or more additional portions of the 3D structure may at least partially cover the at least one functional electronic device.

The method uses a printer with at least 2 printheads so that you can co-print both a matrix material and a conductor.  Electronic components can be manually inserted while the 3D printing operation is temporarily halted and then overprinted to embed the device.  One of the advantages of a direct write printing action that can move in all three axes is that the functional electronic devices can be orientated at any angle in the 3d structure and the conductive filaments are not constrained to a planar pathway as is typical of PCB boards.  The reader can refer to the patent application for more details of the materials for the matrix and the conductive inks but better still I refer you to the spin out company Voxel8 that plans to release this 3D printed electronics platform towards the end of 2015.  The patent application has a priority date of 24 June 2013.  This is an impressive time from filing the technology to a commercial device.  The first announcement of the 3D printer was made at CES 2015 back in early January.

Their promotional website can be found here.  I have included an image of the printer along with one of the devices made on it.

printed device Voxel8Printer

Phil’s comments:

3D printing continues to be an exciting area with many opportunities for prototyping and with the improvement in print heads and materials the devices are becoming more robust to the point that 3D printed components are now as good as their traditionally made counterparts.  The technology described here allows embedded electronics to be included in the 3D printing process.  Voxel8 will leverage ink designs from the Lewis research group, including those that enable 3D printing of resistors, dielectrics, stretchable electronics and sensors, and even lithium ion batteries.  I expect to see a significant number of patent applications emerge as part of this patent family and then further new applications as the materials and processes are developed.

I would like to thank Arthur Berman who contacting me for an opinion on this technology which then prompted me to write the article.