Böhme, who is originally from Karlsruhe, works in an ordinary-looking office in the Mercedes-Benz Development department at the Daimler location in Böblingen. Specialist books are stacked in one corner of the room; in the other, a filter coffee machine waits to be called into service. In between are cables, circuit boards, family photos, and potted plants. The three-man office has something of the creative chaos of a student co-op, and Urs Böhme’s desk is in the center of it. With a mischievous grin, Böhme, a 49-year-old engineer, shows me the officemates’ latest acquisition. “When my colleagues heard that an editor from Daimler Magazine would be coming by, one of them gave me this lamp,” he says. The lamp, an incandescent light bulb with arms and legs, is clamped to Böhme’s monitor. You don’t have to be a Donald Duck fan to see the reference to Gyro Gearloose’s little helper. “Now I always switch it on when I’ve just had an idea,” Böhme says. In the past week alone, the lamp was switched on twice.
The man with over 100 patents
Seeing the light
The ancestor of today’s automobiles was the Benz Patent Motor Car of 1886. This three-wheeled vehicle has been further developed by generations of engineers. Since that year, Daimler AG alone has registered patents for 120,000 innovations. In purely arithmetical terms, that amounts to five per day. But who are the people behind these ideas? What motivates them? And how can inventiveness be cultivated in the course of daily work at the Group? To answer this question, we met up with Urs Böhme, a developer who is one of the most productive patent applicants at Daimler.
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What is worth patenting?
Of course Böhme was having brainstorms even before that lamp was brought into the office. The statistics of the German Patent and Trade Market Office reveal that 104 patents have been registered under his name — and 40 more are in the pipeline. Böhme can vividly remember submitting his first patent application. It was in 2011, shortly after he had switched to his present department, Power Electronics Advanced Development. “Initially I thought my idea was too small — I wasn’t sure whether it was worth patenting at all. My colleagues had to work hard to convince me that it was,” he says. They turned out to be right. This was Böhme’s first entry in the patent register, titled “Verfahren und Vorrichtung zum Entladen einer stromdurchflossenen Spule” (Process and device for discharging a current-carrying coil). In lay language, it’s all about how to cut off the voltage in a current-carrying electric coil in the event of a defect in an electric vehicle, and how to redirect the voltage to a capacitor. The effect of this process is to discharge the stored energy so that the motor quickly loses torque and turns itself off.
”We’ve finished developing the car. What’s left to be done? ”
This example shows that today, it’s mostly not a question of revolutionary inventions — it’s all about details and small improvements. A Time magazine article about inventions even referred to a “Boring Age” during which no groundbreaking innovations could be expected. And even Carl Benz declared in 1920, “We’ve finished developing the car. What’s left to be done?” Today we know that there was quite a lot still to be done. Just think of the crumple zone, the anti-lock brake system (ABS), the electronic stability program (ESP), and the airbag. The last example in particular shows that nowadays inventions are only very rarely the result of a single person’s flash of genius. The original patent for the airbag did not come from Daimler. As early as 1951, an engineer in Munich registered a patent for a “device for the protection of persons inside vehicles from injuries due to collisions.” It was a good idea, but it was relegated to a drawer for years. In 1967, engineers at Mercedes started to tinker with the life-saving airbag and make it practicable. The first solution that reached series maturity was introduced in the S-Class in 1981. It was a milestone in the field of passive safety, and today it is standard equipment in almost every vehicle class.
Innovation — the key to sustainable mobility
A century after the pessimistic prognosis of Carl Benz, development departments are anything but boring. That applies especially to the colleagues who are working on the mission of electrifying the automobile. After all, Daimler has set a clear course for sustainable mobility: It plans to make the fleet of new Mercedes-Benz cars CO2-neutral by 2039. The goal is to have plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles account for more than 50 percent of Daimler car sales by 2030.
The development of sustainable mobility and electric drive concepts is also the mission inspiring Urs Böhme. “This transformation is of course extremely exciting for people who deal with batteries, on-board electrical systems, and semiconductors,” he says. “But the pressure is also increasing: We’ve got more projects running than ever before.” These are projects that fascinate him from an engineering viewpoint and also intrigue him personally. Back when he was a teenager in the 1980s, he was already interested in ideas related to sustainability, resource conservation, and recycling. These are ideas that he is imparting to his three children today. And they are very receptive to these ideas, as can be seen from a drawing by his daughter Daniela that is tacked to Böhme’s office cabinet. It depicts a car that is powered by a very big wind turbine. “She keeps asking me when I’m going to register her sketch as a patent,” says Böhme with a smile.
Tinkering is a family tradition, he adds. Both of his parents are engineers, and when he was only four years old his mother would take him along to lectures at the Technical University of Karlsruhe — now the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). “I don’t think I learned anything from those lectures — but I do remember the locations of the toy stores near the campus,” he says. “All the same, technological topics were very much part of our home life.” His role model was actually his grandfather, Karl Rudolf Böhme, who had registered about 50 patents in his day, including a prototype of the audio cassette.
A boundless love of invention
Tinkering is also a family tradition at Daimler. Even though he was wrong to say that the automobile’s development was finished, Carl Benz was right when he said, “The love of invention never ceases.” That is confirmed by the thousands of invention disclosures that are sent every year to Daimler Brand & IP Management GmbH & Co. KG, or Daimler IP for short. This company is responsible for Daimler’s intellectual property — that is, the Group’s patents, brands, and designs. One of the jurors of new ideas is Ingo Brückner, who is responsible for the areas of drivetrains, eDrive, and driving safety at Daimler IP. “In 2019 we received over 4,500 invention disclosures throughout the Group — over ten percent more than in the two previous years,” he says.
These ideas don’t come exclusively from specialized development teams or think tanks. Theoretically, each one of the approximately 300,000 Daimler employees worldwide is called on to send in his or her ideas. Does every idea become a patent? Brückner shakes his head, saying, “Last year about 2,100 ideas made the journey from the submission of an invention disclosure to a patent registration. One important criterion for success is the presence of a concrete inventive technical solution to a problem, which goes beyond the basic idea. Some of the proposals we receive are simply no longer innovative compared to the known status of the technology involved, so they can’t be patented.” It’s not easy to have an overview of the entire patent landscape and the status quo of technology even within a company, and on a global scale it’s completely impossible. Böhme has already experienced this at first hand. “Of course at first it’s disappointing to find out that someone else was quicker than you — especially if that someone doesn’t work at Daimler,” he says. “But it also shows that my idea was not completely off base.”
”In 2019 we received 4,500 invention disclosures — over ten percent more than in the two previous years.”
Böhme is often on the right track. After his first patent in 2011, he steadily increased the number of his patent applications. In 2019 alone, he submitted about 40. He’s a full-time engineer and the father of three children — where does he find the time to come up with inventions? He never knows when an idea will pop up, he says: “It can happen while I’m walking to the mailbox or during a 14-hour drive to a vacation in Spain, where my wife’s family lives.” On one such drive, while the rest of his family was sleeping in the car, Böhme had time to let his thoughts drift. When he arrived in Zaragoza, all he had to do was to write his invention down on paper. In general, he has to capture his ideas on paper very quickly, and at the office he uses an idea folder on his PC for this purpose. But what happens if he’s kissed by the Muse when he’s already in bed? “That’s not a very unusual occurrence,” he says. “When it happens, I go down to the kitchen and write the idea down. I’m terribly forgetful.”
Invention is a team sport
The kitchen table is also the place where he regularly opens up his notebook in the evening as soon as the children are in bed. Working on an invention is sometimes a matter of a few hours, but it can also last for months. The final step is a four-page online form called “Invention Disclosure” on the Daimler intranet, which is sent to the e-mail inbox of Daimler IP. This document has four fields for data about the inventors, and the personal data of any other participants in the project can be attached in an appendix. “I’ve hardly ever submitted an invention entirely on my own,” says Böhme. “Most of the time we develop inventions as a team, as though we were playing ping-pong.” “Could this work?” “Have you already thought of this aspect?” Often it’s a keyword from the team that results in a breakthrough. “And if someone tells me it’ll never work, that really spurs me on to prove that it’s possible after all!” he says. His collaboration is especially close with the colleague at the neighboring desk, André Haspel — the one who gave him the helpful light bulb. “Urs is the one who encouraged me to invent things. He’s something like my mentor,” says Haspel. The mentoring has been successful: In the three and a half years he’s been in the department, Haspel, who is 24, has submitted more than 60 invention disclosures.
”How can our office be so creative? Because they let us! ”
“How can your office be so creative? “Because they let us!” says Böhme, looking toward the third desk in the three-man office, which is unoccupied at the moment. It’s the team leader’s desk. For Böhme, it’s important that the patents are only a “positive side effect” of his job and his productive cooperation with his colleagues. He spends about 80 percent of his time developing concepts for suppliers at his computer or attending meetings with his colleagues. At the moment, an advanced development project for future vehicle platforms is in the final stretch. The goal is to connect the various modules of the electric drive as effectively as possible. “This is an extremely exciting playground for developers, because it involves new components, innovative circuits, and higher voltage classes,” he says. What Böhme enjoys most of all is the almost 20 percent of his workweek that he spends in one of the laboratories, whether that involves soldering a circuit in the low-volt laboratory next door or conducting a measurement in the emulator in the basement. “The emulator is a cross between a simulation and real vehicle operation. Here we’re more or less playing electric car,” Böhme explains. Thanks to professional explanations and even more imagination, the components scattered around the room can be identified: a motor, a rechargeable battery, power electronics, a cooling system, and a charging station. Cables as thick as a child’s arm suggest that more power is circulating here than is available from a socket in a private home, and Böhme confirms that.
In the Big 100 Club
The invention that Böhme calls “my best so far” was developed and tested together with his co-inventor Haspel in the emulator. It’s a circuit topology for a quasi-insulated voltage converter. Explained in brief, it’s a device that makes it possible to combine two high-voltage systems in an electric vehicle. In the event that the insulation in one of the systems should be defective, the converter ensures that there is no excessive load on the other system, which in the worst case could lead to a short circuit. Thanks to this innovation, the two-man team won a European innovation award in the spring of 2019. This award, which is made of glass, now graces the sideboard between their two desks.
Daimler has also been honoring its inventors in-house since 2007. But if you’re looking for a whole cabinet full of trophies in view of Urs Böhme’s numerous patents, you’re wasting your time. “The Daimler Inventor Trophy is displayed in a prominent spot in my living room,” he says. The special thing about this award is that it grows along with the number of inventions it honors. The trophy is granted for the recipient’s first patent. For later patents, it can be expanded by as many as four components — representing 20, 50 or 100 inventions — that are stacked on top of one another. Böhme’s trophy has been complete since December 2019. The last component was personally presented to him by Markus Schäfer, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, where he is responsible for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Chief Operating Officer. “Standing on that stage, I grew a few centimeters taller,” Böhme recalls. And rightly so. “Whereas more than 10,000 employees have been honored with the initial trophy since 2007, only 15 of our colleagues have reached the magic mark of the Big 100,” says Ingo Brückner from Daimler IP.
Invention pays off
This flow of good ideas benefits both sides: the company and the inventors alike. Recently, the Center of Automotive Management (CAM) recognized Mercedes-Benz as the most innovative premium brand at the AutomotiveINNOVATIONS Award 2020. What’s more, the US brand evaluation company Brand Finance recently named Mercedes-Benz the world’s most valuable automobile brand. Innovative strength is a key factor that determines the value of a brand, and thus of a company as a whole. And what about the inventors? Their patents bring them not only honor but also cash. By law they have to receive a certain monetary reward, even if they are salaried employees. At Daimler, the flat rate individual remuneration for inventors is €1,000 for each officially approved first patent registration. If the patent application has been submitted by more than one person — Urs Böhme often has more than half a dozen collaborators — this amount is divided between them. “If the invention is actually implemented in practice, an additional €2,500 is paid out. Four years after the patent has been accepted for implementation, we check once again to see if an additional payment would be appropriate,” explains the IP expert Ingo Brückner. “It’s an attractive package for our researchers, developers, and creative minds — and that’s as it should be.” When Böhme is asked whether he has ever bought himself anything special with his prize money, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “We’re paying off our mortgage. And, oh yes — I bought myself a robot vacuum cleaner.”
One thing that Urs Böhme will probably never buy for himself is a robot inventor — because he’s so enthusiastic about the work he does, and because the mobility of tomorrow requires the creativity of people like him today. A century ago, Carl Benz described this inner impulse to scrutinize things that already exist in order to create new ones as follows: “Inventing something is much more enjoyable than having invented something.” There’s no doubt about it: The helpful light bulb on Urs Böhme’s desk will light up many more times in the future.
The article about Urs Böhme is the first joint production of Daimler Magazine and Mercedes me Magazine. More insights into the brand world of Mercedes-Benz can be found here.