90 F.3d 1576 (Fed. Cir. 1996), 96-1058, Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc.

Docket Nº:96-1058.
Citation:90 F.3d 1576
Party Name:39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1573 VITRONICS CORPORATION, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CONCEPTRONIC, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:July 25, 1996
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
 
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90 F.3d 1576 (Fed. Cir. 1996)

39 U.S.P.Q.2d 1573

VITRONICS CORPORATION, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

CONCEPTRONIC, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 96-1058.

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

July 25, 1996

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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James J. Foster, Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks, P.C., Boston, Massachusetts, argued, for plaintiff-appellant. With him on the brief were Lawrence M. Green and Brett N. Dorny.

Paul J. Hayes, Weingarten, Schurgin, Gagnebin & Hayes, Boston, Massachusetts, argued, for defendant-appellee. With him on the brief was Dean G. Bostock.

Before MICHEL and LOURIE, Circuit Judges, and FRIEDMAN, Senior Circuit Judge.

MICHEL, Circuit Judge.

Vitronics Corporation ("Vitronics") appeals the September 27, 1995 order of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire, Civil Action No. 91-696-L, entering judgment as a matter of law that Vitronics did not prove that Conceptronic, Inc. ("Conceptronic") infringed claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 4,654,502 ("the '502 patent"). The appeal was submitted for decision after oral argument on May 8, 1996. Because we conclude that the specification of the '502 patent dictates a claim interpretation in accordance with the plaintiff's proposed construction, and that, so construed, the '502 patent may have been infringed, we reverse the trial court's decision and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

The Patented Invention

Vitronics and Conceptronic both manufacture ovens used in the production of printed

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circuit boards. The ovens are used to solder electrical devices (such as resistors, capacitors and integrated circuits) to the boards. Several methods of soldering devices to boards have been developed; the '502 patent, assigned to Vitronics, is directed to one of those methods.

Specifically, the '502 patent is directed to a method for the reflow soldering of surface mounted devices to a printed circuit board in which the circuit board is moved by a conveyor through a multizone oven. In this process, a solder paste is placed on the circuit board and the devices to be soldered (with attached connectors) are placed on the paste. The circuit board is then placed on what is basically a conveyor belt running through an oven and passing through several different heating zones. In the final and hottest zone, the solder paste melts and forms a connection between the device and the circuit board. The boards remain in the last heating zone for only a short duration, allowing the solder to reach a temperature high enough to cause the solder to melt and reflow while maintaining the devices themselves below the solder reflow temperature. Due to this temperature differential, the solder flows up the device connectors to form a solid connection.

Claim 1 of the '502 patent, the only claim at issue in this appeal, reads as follows (with added emphasis on the disputed terms):

1. A method for reflow soldering of surface mounted devices to a printed circuit board comprising:

moving a printed circuit board having solder and devices disposed on a surface thereof through a first zone and in close proximity to a first emitting surface of at least one nonfocused infrared panel emitter, said first emitting surface being at a first panel temperature;

moving said board through a second zone and in close proximity to a second emitting surface of at least one nonfocused infrared panel emitter, said second emitting surface being at a second panel temperature lower than said first panel temperature; and

moving said board through a third zone and in close proximity to a third emitting surface of at least one nonfocused infrared panel emitter, said third emitting surface being at a third panel temperature higher than said second panel temperature, said third emitting surface heating said board and said solder to a solder reflow temperature for a period of time sufficient to cause said solder to reflow and solder said devices to said board while maintaining the temperature of said devices below said solder reflow temperature.

Proceedings Before the District Court

This action was brought on November 26, 1991 by Vitronics against Conceptronic for infringement of both the '502 patent and U.S. Patent No. 4,833,301 ("the '301 patent"). 1 At the time the suit was filed, Conceptronic was selling the "Mark series" line of ovens. Conceptronic later discontinued the Mark series and began selling the "HVC series" line of ovens. Prior to trial, the parties stipulated that every limitation of claim 1 of the '502 patent was met by the HVC series of ovens, except the limitation requiring the utilization of "nonfocused infrared panel emitters" and the limitation that the temperature of the devices must be maintained below the "solder reflow temperature." 2

Vitronics, by way of a request for a jury instruction, asked the court to construe the meaning of the "solder reflow temperature" limitation. The specific instruction sought by Vitronics was as follows:

In considering the question of whether the '502 method patent has been infringed by the Mark and HVC Series ovens, you have to decide whether, in use, those ovens maintain the temperature of the devices below the solder reflow temperature. The phrase "solder reflow temperature" in the '502 patent means the temperature reached by the solder during the period it is reflowing during the final stages of the

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soldering process, sometimes referred to as the "peak solder reflow temperature." It does not mean the "liquidus temperature," the temperature at which the solder first begins to melt. Thus, if the temperature of the devices stays below that of the solder, the '502 method patent is infringed by the Mark and HVC Series ovens.

Thus, Vitronics contended that, as used in the claim, solder reflow temperature means peak reflow temperature, i.e., a temperature approximately 20? C above the liquidus temperature, at which the solder is completely melted and moves freely. Conceptronic, on the other hand, contended that solder reflow temperature means 183? C, i.e., the liquidus temperature of a particular type of solder known as 63/37 (Sn/Pb) solder. 3

The district court delayed construing the disputed language until the close of testimony, at which time it ruled in favor of Conceptronic and concluded that the term "solder reflow temperature" as used in claim 1 refers to 183? C. Vitronics then conceded that the court was required to grant judgment as a matter of law in favor of Conceptronic, as Vitronics had not presented any evidence of infringement under the court's interpretation of solder reflow temperature. This appeal followed.

Claim Construction Aids Before the District Court

In spite of Vitronics' early request for a jury instruction on the proper claim construction, the district court delayed announcing its claim construction until hearing all the evidence put forth at trial. During trial, and in their briefs to the district court in support of their respective claim constructions, the parties discussed the patent specification, expert testimony, prior testimony and writings of Vitronics and its employees, and technical references. The most pertinent materials are discussed below.

The Patent Specification

Vitronics relied heavily upon the patent itself to support its asserted claim construction. Although Vitronics conceded that the term "solder reflow temperature" may be ambiguous when considered in isolation, it argued that the specification clearly shows that, as used in the claim, solder reflow temperature means peak reflow temperature rather than the liquidus temperature. In particular, Vitronics pointed to that part of the specification that describes a preferred embodiment:

A preferred embodiment of the invention for reflow soldering of surface mounted devices to printed circuit boards will now be described. The printed circuit boards are typically made of epoxy-glass, such as fire retardant 4(FR-4), or polyamide glass. These boards typically degrade above temperatures of 225? C. The solder may be, for example, 60/40 (Sn/Pb), 63/37 (Sn/Pb), or 62/36/2 (Sn/Pb/Ag), all of which have a liquidus temperature (i.e. begin to melt) of about 190? C. and a peak reflow temperature of about 210? -218? C. Thus, to effect reflow soldering without damaging the board, the solder must be allowed to reach a temperature of at least 210? C., but the board cannot reach a temperature of 225? C.

. . . . .

The board is then sent into a fifth zone 5 to bring the temperature of the board up to a temperature of approximately 210? C., the devices up to approximately 195? C., and the solder up to approximately 210? C. for a period of time of from about 10 to about 20 seconds to cause the solder to flow. Because the devices are cooler than the board, the solder flows up the devices.... The board spends approximately 60 seconds in the fifth zone, but only about 10 to 20 seconds at 210? C. Thus, the board is at the solder reflow temperature for only a short period of time and the

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devices never reach the solder reflow temperature.

Vitronics pointed out that, in the example described as the preferred embodiment, the temperature of the solder is raised to 210? C, the peak reflow temperature, and the temperature of the devices is raised to 195? C, 5? above the 190? C liquidus temperature. Thus, as argued by Vitronics, the term "solder reflow temperature" must be construed so that it refers to the peak reflow temperature because the claim requires that the temperature of the devices be maintained below "said solder reflow temperature"; if solder reflow temperature were construed to refer to liquidus temperature, the preferred embodiment would not be covered by the patent claims.

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