Using prior art patents as fodder for new designs is one way the patent system encourages and stimulates innovation. Educating the engineer on how to use the system to his or her advantage is not terribly difficult, but is rarely done.
Engineers tend to have little use for issued patents. From their standpoint, many patents are obscure, badly written legalese that serves only to grant the inventor another plaque and a check for $1000.
After the engineer gets comfortable with the format and style of patents, and he or she can see several patents that relate to their immediate problems, the engineer can start using the explanations in the patents to understand the problem at hand. In my experience, reading someone else’s explanation has helped me understand my problem more precisely, often in ways I had not yet considered.
The engineer may also immediately see different ideas that can be incorporated into solving the present problem.
One of the stumbling blocks in letting the engineer see prior art is that he or she can get blinded by it, and only be able to see other people’s solution. Or more precisely, can only see how his or her solution is similar to the prior art. This can lead to a temporary paralysis where the designer can only see someone else’s solutions.
After a period of time, the engineer will begin to see the holes in the prior art, the negative space as it were, where other solutions exist to problems that may or may not have been solved by the prior art.
For me, getting past that difficult point is sometimes challenging. I tend to start by looking at how my solution differs from the prior art, even slightly. Then, I build on the differences until alternative solutions begin to form that have some patentable distinctions from the prior art. As I go through this process, I begin to switch from seeing only the positive images of all the prior art to the negative space of innovation between the existing patents. Many times, this catapults my ideas into a new area of innovation that I would have never otherwise reached.