Computers was the biggest area for patent activity worldwide last year, but medical devices saw the most growth, according to a new report this week.
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Inventors also spent more time working on electronic cigarettes and the common washing machine. And the report reveals that China, while being the overall world leader in patent filings, is poorly represented when it comes to the top companies in each field.
The data is from Thomson Reuters' 2012 State of Innovation report (free registration required). Using patent activity as a proxy for innovation, the report concludes that innovation is "on the upswing" after flattening out in the down economy.
The category 'Computers & Peripherals' accounted for nearly a third of worldwide patent activity last year, followed by telecommunications, automotive and semiconductors, Thomson Reuters said. That ordering was unchanged for the last four years.
There were 201,608 new computer-related patents filed worldwide, the biggest single technology area and up 3 percent from 2010.
The biggest growth was in medical devices, which accounted for 8 percent of patent activity and grew nearly 16 percent between 2010 and 2012. The most active companies in that category were Fujifilm and Olympus, for their work around medical imaging devices.
The category "food, tobacco and beverage fermentation" was a small one, but within it, tobacco and sugar are booming, with patent activity up 58 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
"By far, these two subsectors experienced the largest growth across all areas in our study," Bob Stembridge, a customer solutions manager and patent analyst at Thomson Reuters, said via email.
"A closer look at these subsectors reveals patents associated with dietary supplements and innovations associated with electronic cigarettes," he said.
Domestic appliances was another growth area, especially the subcategory "laundry," perhaps from advances to make washing machines more power- and water-efficient.
The report lists the top 10 "assignees" for patent filings in each of 12 categories, or industries. China was "severely under-represented" when it came to appearing in those top 10 lists, Thomson Reuters said.
"China, despite being the world leader in overall patent filing volume, holds 27 of the top 120 assignee slots, whereas Japan has 67 of them," Stembridge said.
The U.S. was second in overall patent filing volume, followed by Japan.