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Rockwell and Beckhoff settle linear motor patent dispute

25 August, 2014

A legal dispute between Rockwell Automation and Beckhoff Automation over linear motor patents has been settled “amicably”, with Rockwell granting Beckhoff licences to more than a dozen of its US and European linear motor patents.

The agreement allows the German automation supplier Beckhoff to sell its XTS linear transport system anywhere in the world, except in the US, where it will have to wait until June 2019 before selling the system.

Beckhoff unveiled its XTS (eXtended Transport System) in 2012 with the claim that it combined the advantages of linear and rotary motors and would make complete new machine concepts possible. The system (demonstrated above) propels carriages containing magnetic plates around a track that can be made into almost any shape using combinations of curved and straight sections. The track contains coils which drive the cable-free carriages – called movers ­– at speeds of up to 4m/s.

But Beckhoff was not the only company with a technology like this. Jacobs Automation, a US specialist in intelligent track technology, had developed a similar system, called iTrak (shown above), that provided independent control of multiple magnetically propelled movers on straight or curved paths.

In January 2013, Jacobs and Rockwell Automation announced that they were collaborating to combine iTrak with Rockwell’s Integrated Architecture, thus offering machine-builders a tightly integrated motion technology for use on production lines.

At the time, Victor Swint, vice president of Rockwell’s motion control business said: “We believe that the combination of Jacobs' iTrak technology with our Integrated Architecture will be a game-changer for machine-builders. They are going to be able to provide their customers with the most innovative machines in the market.”

Not long after – in November of 2013 – Rockwell announced that it was buying Jacobs Automation.

By that stage, Rockwell had already begun legal proceedings against Beckhoff in the US courts, alleging that the German company was infringing five of its linear motor patents.

Rockwell’s linear motor business, now including Jacobs Automation, has a portfolio of more than 100 patents covering linear motor technologies.

Beckhoff will have to wait until 2019 before selling its XTS transport system in the US

Rockwell’s complaint, filed in the Nevada district court in September 2013, covered alleged infringements of a series of patents, some of which dated back to 1999. Rockwell also asked the court for a temporary restraining order to stop Beckhoff from exhibiting the XTS system at the Pack Expo show in Las Vegas later that month.

The two parties then entered negotiations which resulted in Beckhoff agreeing, among other things, not to sell or exhibit the XTS system in the US. It also agreed to keep the XTS system that it has been planning to exhibit at the Las Vegas show in the US to allow Rockwell’s experts and attorneys to inspect it.

Following a series of further court orders and out-of-court negotiations, Rockwell and Beckhoff have now agreed that Rockwell will licence more than a dozen of its linear motor patents to Beckhoff. The German company will also delay the launch of XTS in the US for five years.

Under the agreement, Beckhoff can market and sell the XTS system anywhere outside the US. Any Beckhoff customers located outside the US who integrate an XTS into their machines will be allowed to sell those integrated systems into the US, subject to the licence terms.

“We are pleased to resolve this matter and have our patent rights respected,” says Marco Wishart, vice-president and general manager of Rockwell Automation’s motion control business. “This agreement allows our customers to integrate linear motor independent cart technology into a wide range of machines.”

Beckhoff Automation’s owner and managing director, Hans Beckhoff, says: “We found a good solution for our customers outside the US, who may integrate the Beckhoff XTS linear motor system as one of the most advanced motion technologies into their machines.”

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