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Articles from 2013 In November


Slideshow: Xbox One Teardown

Microsoft's third-generation Xbox game console -- the Xbox One -- was released Nov. 22. Tech specs:<br /> <li>Eight-core x86 processor</li> <li>HDMI pass-through</li> <li>8 GB of RAM</li> <li>500 GB storage capacity</li> <li>Blu-ray/DVD drive</li>

After eight years, Microsoft has finally released a proper successor to the Xbox 360 -- the Xbox One.

Will this be the One Xbox to rule them all? The iFixit team is here to show us. Click on the console below to get a look inside Microsoft's newest gaming system.

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The A/C Blew Up the Earth Station

The A/C Blew Up the Earth Station

Problems can always arise with sub-contractors. That was certainly true at the earth station in Kenya's Rift Valley. Building a complete satellite earth station from scratch is a major project involving civil, electrical, and electronic engineering. You have the buildings and all their services, as well as the actual antenna and all the telecom equipment, not forgetting standby diesel generators and water boreholes and septic tanks.

It made economic sense to employ local sub-contractors where possible as it was usually cheaper than shipping everything from the UK.

We employed the local branch of an international air-conditioning company to design and install all the A/C and ventilation systems. Everything seemed to go well at first. The A/C plant was tested and signed off in a timely fashion. We finished the installation and commissioning phase and went "on-air." Then, we started to prepare for the opening ceremony where President Jomo Kenyatta would declare it officially open.

Just a few days before the ceremony, most of us were in the control room when a deep "boom" echoed round the building. The floor shook and the normal background rush of cooling fans slowly died away. The power turned off completely, leaving us in total silence and half-darkness. The sound appeared to have come from the corridor, so we ran to the sliding glass doors that led from the control room. Without power the automatic doors remained shut. We found a screwdriver and pried the doors apart enough to get fingers into the gap, after which a couple of guys were able to slide them far enough apart to get through.

I ran down the corridor to the southern end of the building leading to the stores and various offices. I came to the door to the A/C plant room and noticed curls of smoke coming from the ventilation grille. Mindful of the possibility of fire, I opened the door a tiny crack. It seemed to be just acrid white smoke and no sign of flames, so I cautiously peeped into the room.

As the smoke cleared, I could see the far wall of the room which supported half a dozen big control cabinets and switch boxes. Most of the front panels had been blown off and some were still swinging, hanging at crazy angles from broken hinges and festooned with dangling wires. Below the cabinets was a run of trunking around the room with most of the lids blown off and the bundles of wires inside just smoking, half-molten messes of burnt PVC with the tell-tale bright red of overheated copper strands.

With the immediate danger located and contained, it took just a few minutes to isolate the entire A/C system, start the diesels, and reset the main breakers, after which we had the station back on air quite quickly. Within hours the sub-contractors were back on site for the inevitable hard questions. We needed to find out what caused the catastrophic failure and what the subcontractors were going to do to sort it out before the President's visit. The first question was answered quite quickly when the senior contractor showed us the wiring diagram for the A/C controls.

To his embarrassment and our amazement, there wasn't a single fuse between the incoming 300 amp feeder and the thinnest control circuit wires (28AWG), i.e., no systematic discrimination at all. We never found what the prime failure was but once the first failure had occurred it gave rise to an inevitable cascade of faults, leading to complete destruction of all the wiring in the trunking and trip of the incoming HV feeder.

The words "President" and "in five days' time" clearly carried much weight. The next day we heard that the hapless young engineer who had designed the installation had been sacked and sent back to UK in disgrace. Then the contractor began work to clean up the mess and replace all the wiring with the addition of fuses and MCBs at strategic points to ensure correct discrimination. Much to the credit of the contractor, soon it was all working again and the opening ceremony went off without hitch, much to our great relief.

Maybe our contract engineers should have asked to see the installation drawings before the job went ahead. If they had, the obvious oversight might have been spotted. Or was it reasonable to assume that the contractor would actually employ competent designers? more than 40 years later, we now have much more emphasis on quality control and procedures for certification, so I'd like to think it wouldn't happen again in such an egregious fashion. The company is still listed in trade directories as an international air conditioning contractor.

Rod Hine graduated from Churchill College in Cambridge, England. He worked in satellite communications, meteorological telecoms, and then general automation, machine tools, and industrial control systems. He has also lectured in electronic engineering and cybernetics.

Tell us your experience in solving a knotty engineering problem. Send stories to Lauren Muskett for Sherlock Ohms.

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Windows Phone App Studio Gets Upgraded

Windows Phone App Studio Gets Upgraded

As the number of countries with Windows phones increases, so does the number of apps being downloaded. These numbers make me wonder whether I should quit my day job and vie for a slice of the pie by releasing my own app for Windows Phone 8.

Advertised as an easy way to get into SDK for the Windows Phone Environment, Windows Phone App Studio caters not only to the professional developer, but also to the novice. By creating a Microsoft account, a user running IE10 can choose from the available categories in the marketplace, add the content desired, choose the style, and then try out the creation. There are four streamlined steps, which even I can use to get my start in the app market. A more experienced developer can take this basic creation and tweak it further using Visual Studio.

Since its launch in August, the App Studio has received several boosts in functionality and improvements in how developers can use it. One of the more prominent upgrades is the use of NFC, which allows developers to send apps to each other by touching their phones together. This should make collaborations much easier.

The Windows Phone team has also implemented a new cache for external data sources, allowing access to dynamic data, like stock prices and RSS feeds, regardless of whether the phone is connected. It is also easier to integrate built-in phone functions that allow people to make calls, play music, etc., without having to exit the app. Furthermore, by including calls to Windows Phone Ad SDK, the developer with a pubCenter account would be able to add advertisements to an app and start generating some income.

These upgrades come with the hopes that Windows Phone App Studio will keep the recent app explosion very much alive. Since its launch, the 160,000 people who have used the program have created 65,000 apps. Feedback to the Windows Phone team has been the key element in how these improvements have been implemented.

Given the ease with which you can create an app for Windows, what is holding you back?

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My Opinion on the Internet of Things

My Opinion on the Internet of Things

Every once in a while a topic or area of technology crops up that's the "talk of the town," so to speak. The topic that's in vogue at the moment is the Internet of Things, or IoT, or Internet of Everything, as Qualcomm likes to say. The idea of having everything connected to everything is quite intriguing and opens up a wealth of opportunities.

When this topic came up a few years ago, the common example was, "if your refrigerator knew that you were low on milk, it could send a signal to the grocery store, and they could have your items waiting for you." Or worse, "if your scale could talk to your refrigerator ...," well, you know the rest.

But now there are some better examples -- really. One that I like is the concept of wearable computing. I stick my Fitbit into my pocket before I go out for a run and when I get back, the data from my workout is downloaded automatically to my PC so I can track my progress (or lately, lack thereof).

How about the Internet-enabled watch? It's only Internet-enabled when you pair it with your phone, which, presumably is somewhere in your pocket, your bag, or on your body. That Internet connection lets me see information that would otherwise be on the phone's display without having to take the phone out of my pocket. It's a small time savings, but it's a convenience.

On my daughter's college campus, when her laundry is ready to be moved from the washer to the dryer or the drying cycle has been completed, she gets a message on her phone. That's pretty useful. Or more so, she can get an alert when there's a free machine.

Another useful application of this technology is what's referred to as crowdsourcing. That means that we take information from a group of people, in some cases without their knowledge (sort of), to provide useful information. For example, if you had the right sensors built into the phones of a group of people in a similar location, you could provide really accurate weather reports in real time. If I want to know what the weather's like in London, my app would ping all the equipped phones in that city, and return the information. The same can be said for traffic reports. This occurs with a few apps today, but it's a manual process.

Now take the IoT to a more industrial setting. Having machines on a factory floor linked together has always been possible, and has been around for a while. But the IoT connections are far more simple and can be accessed from anywhere you can access the Internet. Hence, the operations manager doesn't have to pull out his laptop anymore to check on production. He can check on his iPad or his smartphone. Again, it's a small savings, but I bet that ops manager is very appreciative.

And that brings up the last point, one that hasn't been fully addressed yet -- the security surrounding an IoT connection. It's one thing when someone can hack into your laundry cycle, but it's totally different when we're talking about an assembly line, or even a hospital network. It's a subject that's getting a lot of attention, but still has a way to go.

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The Many Faces of Manufacturing Efficiency

The Many Faces of Manufacturing Efficiency

North American plants are becoming more efficient. While the term lean manufacturing once had a very specific meaning at plants like Toyota with its quality circles, now the term has come to mean any technique that brings efficiency and optimization to the manufacturing process. This goal is to improve throughput while reducing waste, to improve uptime while reducing energy consumption, to improve safety while reducing work stoppages.

Gains in manufacturing efficiency and automation means that logistics play a larger role in choosing a location for a plant. If your manufacturing is efficient in Ohio, you will be less likely to locate your plant in China. What you save in cheap overseas labor will be eaten up by shipping. The idea of keeping your manufacturing close to home works only if you can make sure your processes are very lean. We're seeing new progress on a wide range of plant processes.

Less hardware and more software
One of the trends we're seeing in lean processes is an increase of reliance on software and the trimming down of hardware. "How can you do more with less? If you have more functions with one controller instead of many controllers, you'll be more efficient," Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation, told Design News. "You can control a machine with three axes with one controller. The synchronization is easier with one controller because all the data is on one CPU. That also saves cabinet space."

The savings in hardware can include everything from PCs and controllers to wires. "You have less hardware and more software now. That's efficient," Harris told us. "You have only one cable, while traditionally, it was dual cables. So you have less material. Safety is now integrated into the same Ethernet bus as the controller. That offers savings in set-up."

Safety and simulation
Safety has become significantly more efficient. For one, you can run safety on the same wire as control and power. For another, safety breeches don't have to bring down the whole plant. "We have safety in zones now. We have the ability to just stop the zone when there is a safety infraction," Patrick McDermott, regional manager at B&R Industrial Automation, told Design News. "We don't have to stop everything. We're going to programmable safety."

Simulation has also brought efficiency to plant processes. Changes can now be worked out in simulation before you turn on machines that might crash into each other if you don't work out the configuration ahead of time in software. "Technology also means I'm not rewiring when I make a change. I'm changing the code instead. It's configuration, not design and rewiring," said McDermott.

The simulation means changes can be made both accurately and quickly. "One factor is time-to-market. Simulation allows machine builders to minimizing time on the machine," McDermott told us. "You can spend your programming time up front. That minimizes time on the machine."

Employee buy-in
Another way to make sure efficiency really takes hold in a plant is to get employee buy-in. You get the buy-in by involving employees in the efficiency process. "It starts with getting people to understand there is always room for improvement. You have to embrace all employees," Jim Coshnitzke, a manager at Clippard, told Design News. "You get people in production, supervision, and management, and you map the current cycle. You model it and get input from everyone."

"That input from everyone can be as little as changing the work set-up to make production movements more efficient. It may not seem like much when you save a handful of seconds, but they can add up to real savings. You look at what steps you can change. You rearrange tools to make movements easier. You save 15 minutes. You add it up and it saves hours," said Coshnitzke. "You work on those ideas. But in order to get the employees' ideas, you have to have employee buy-in."

The employee input can be as little as saving movement or as large as changing the fundamental manufacturing process. "In one instance, we compared batch to process. We had been doing batch. So we took all of the employees and took them through a Lego exercise," said Coshnitzke. "We did batch, and then we did flow. We saw a 300-percent improvement with flow. Everyone was involved, so we have the buy-in to switch from bath to flow."

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The Importance of Mentors

The Importance of Mentors

During my several careers I had the good fortune to learn from three mentors, and as I wrap up my career, they deserve mention. I hope you have had equally good fortune to work for and with such good people.

Seventh grade caused me nothing but problems, and my interest in science and math waned. Things changed in eighth grade science with John Shuttleworth, who had just started in our district. John rekindled my interest in science. He taught well and made science interesting and fun. Things started to look better. Luckily, I had John as my high school chemistry teacher. At last I could follow problems and solve them due to John's clear explanations and step-by-step examples. I had the feeling I might have a career in science after all. Eventually I earned degrees in chemistry.

When I got to grad school, I met David Larsen, who taught an "electronics for scientists" class at Virginia Tech. We hit it off right away, and a few years later Dave helped several of us start a company that created educational electronic hardware and books for people interested in computers and electronics. Dave showed us new ways to approach business, gave us encouragement, and suggested helpful marketing ideas. I learned a lot about how to work with people, how to communicate well, how to conduct business fairly, and how to carefully evaluate business opportunities. He might not realize how much I learned from him and how I still enjoy our friendship. Now Dave promotes amateur radio for personal and emergency communications in the Republic of Dominica through his FAIRS charity based in Floyd, Vir.

When I became chief editor at EDN magazine in 1986, Roy Forsberg was the editorial director. We got along well, enjoyed working together, and shared an editorial vision for the magazine. Roy wouldn't put up with nonsense, and, as a Naval Academy graduate, he knew how to lead and how to inspire people. I learned more and better leadership skills from Roy, as well as how to formulate and present business and marketing ideas and plans. During "rough spots," I knew Roy would listen and offer helpful advice. I cannot remember Roy ever giving direct orders to me or other people. Instead, he helped people understand what we needed to do and we knew he would support us. I enjoyed my time working with Roy and our friendship continues. I can't thank Roy enough for his mentoring.

These three men share characteristics of good mentors. They all provided guidance without issuing "orders" to do something, and they gave helpful advice and suggestions based on their experiences. My mentors had a solid moral and ethical foundation on which they based their actions. Good mentors also challenged me to continue learning new skills and to try new things, even though I might (and did) make mistakes. And instead of saying "this is wrong," or something similar, they pointed out errors and problems, and helped me learn from them. My three mentors had excellent reputations, which made me and others admire them and want to live up to their expectations.

Mentoring goes beyond the work environment. My mentors became friends as we talked about family, education, astronomy, sailing, landscaping, home maintenance, flying, travel, and many other interesting subjects. Good mentoring requires a personality that puts people at ease talking about themselves.

I write this column as my last in a long series for Design News. Time has come for retirement so I can mentor pre-engineering high-school students, spoil grandkids, spend time in my lab and shop, and travel with Jane, my wife of 43 years. Thanks to the Design News staff I had freedom to write about topics I thought engineers would find helpful. I wish you good health and good fortune, dear readers.

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Rockwell Facilitates Implementation of Safety Automation Processes

Rockwell Facilitates Implementation of Safety Automation Processes

Safety has always been a concern on the factory floor when it comes to the technology driving automation systems, and more and more automation technology providers are trying to make it easier to prioritize this as part of system design.

Rockwell Automation has been a champion of this effort, offering a number of tools to help manufacturers design safer systems. Its most recent offering is the AADvance Workbench 2.0, a complete design, configuration, and maintenance software environment that helps enable companies ensure safe and continuous operation through the control of safety process automation, according to Rockwell.

The new workbench joins two tools the company introduced earlier this year -- the Rockwell Automation Safety Automation Builder configuration software and Safety Functions design documents -- in the interest of helping manufacturers build safer systems, machines, and equipment.

AADvance Workbench stems from Rockwell's acquisition several years ago of ICS Triplex. The system is comprised of the AADvance controller platform configured to any mix of SIL1 to SIL3 simplex, redundant, or triplicated safety loops. Manufacturers can use several units to form a network of distributed safety controls and to monitor and control thousands of safety I/O points, the company said.

Application designers also can perform a number of other functions with the product, including importing, exporting, or migrating projects, and monitoring and managing controller status and communications protocols with plug-ins to the tool.

AADvance has been integrated into Rockwell's PlantPAx process automation system, making process safety a part of the larger process automation system rather than a separate aspect of it, said Julien Chouinard, director of process safety and critical control for Rockwell, in a press release.

"The workbench is now an integral part of the PlantPAx process automation system, which is capable of managing the entire range of plant automation applications, including process control, discrete control, power, information, and process safety," he said.

To configure a system, engineers would use the workbench software for any functional-safety or critical-control application using a standard range of modules and assemblies included in the software. For example, emergency shutdowns and protection applications for fire-and-gas detection are two applications the software is particularly well suited for, since the workbench provides a system solution with integrated and distributed fault tolerance, according to Rockwell.

The company designed the workbench for usability, with a modern graphical user interface, drag-and-drop configuration, and built-in simulation features. For flexibility in programming the system, the workbench includes compliant IEC61131 programming languages, according to the company.

Rockwell said it plans to release the AADvance Workbench 2.0 in the first quarter of next year.

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Faulty Radiator Cap Lets Fluid Fly

Faulty Radiator Cap Lets Fluid Fly

When our first grandchild was due, we traded our campervan for a dual-cab Toyota Hilux so we could tow a caravan (you can't put child seats in a campervan). Part of the deal when we bought it (second-hand) included parts-and-labor insurance on the main engine components, and fixed-price servicing for some years. I had to travel further to work so my wife used the Hilux for short trips and I drove our two-door Mazda.

One day my wife noticed that the engine temperature was high, so we took it in for a service. The shop cleaned a few leaves out of the radiator grill and sent us home. That didn't fix the problem, so back to the shop we went. They replaced the thermostat. Then we had to go back to have the water pump replaced. Next is was the radiator. We thought we were all set, but we ended up back again, and this time we were told that the cylinder head was warped. They kept the Hilux for a week while they machined the head and re-installed it. Part of that was not covered by the insurance.

Shortly after, we were in the process of buying a new house. I had to see solicitors to sort out details, and on the way there the Hilux began to seriously overheat. We couldn't stop or we could have lost the house, so we kept going with one eye on the temp gauge. Afterward, we drove straight to the service bay and said as nicely as possible, "Fix it!" The mechanic said that it the problem must be the gauge, and then he removed the radiator cap, at which point antifreeze sprayed everywhere.

The cap turned out to be faulty. When they replaced it with a new one, the problem went away. I think the cap was drawing air instead of fluid from the overflow tank. I checked the level in the tank when cold and it seemed to be constant. My big mistake was to take the maintenance agreement instead of doing it myself.

The Hilux has been fine since -- about eight years.

Tell us your experiences with Monkey-designed products. Send stories to Lauren Muskett for Made by Monkeys.

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Self-Healing Polymer Could Be Key to Longer-Lasting Batteries

Self-Healing Polymer Could Be Key to Longer-Lasting Batteries

A couple of months ago, we told you about a so-called Terminator polymer that could heal itself. Now, researchers at Stanford University are using a similar material to improve the durability of lithium-ion batteries so they don't crack under the pressure of use.

Researchers in Stanford's and the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a conductive self-healing polymer and used it to coat the electrode of a battery, which binds the electrode together and spontaneously heals tiny cracks that develop during battery operation.

This makes the battery more durable and able to withstand more charge and discharge cycles, lasting 10 times longer in tests in the lab than typical lithium-ion batteries, Chao Wang, a post-doctoral researcher working on the project, told Design News, in an email.

The benefit of using self-heal polymer is that the mechanical failures inside the battery can self-heal at the same time, maintaining the electrical and mechanical contact of the materials. In this way, the decay of the capacity can be much slower. We don't need to change the chemistry of the battery. The self-healing polymer composite serves as a coating on the active materials.

Wang -- who developed the polymer and coating method with Professor Zhenan Bao -- said the inspiration for the work comes from nature, pointing out the ability humans have to heal once we've been injured. However, existing self-healing polymers to date have not been conductive, which required Bao, Wang, and their team to modify a self-healing material that already existed by adding tiny nanoparticles of carbon to the polymer, Wang said.

We want to make the self-healing materials with electrical property, so we modified a previously known self-healing polymer, tuned the mechanical properties according to our need, and made it conductive. It can self-heal because it has a lot of hydrogen bonds, which are weak and reversible. So when there are mechanical damages, these hydrogen bonds will break first instead of covalent bonds. The hydrogen bonds will reversibly form and self-heal when the damaged interfaces get in touch again.

Wang and Hui Wu, a former Stanford postdoc who is now a faculty member at Tsinghua University in Beijing, co-authored a paper about their research in a recent article in Nature Chemistry.

Indeed, researchers have been trying a number of ways to create longer-lasting batteries for myriad devices and in particular electric vehicles (EVs), which still lack a viable battery that lasts long enough to go long distances without being recharged. Battery lifetime is also an issue for electronic devices like smartphones, as researchers seek ways to make batteries not only last longer before needing a recharge but also have a longer life span in general.

Many research efforts under way are experimenting with battery chemistries, trading ion for air in lithium-based batteries or trying a new spin on old chemistries, such as lead-acid batteries. The Stanford effort appears to be one of the first to find a new way to improve lithium-ion batteries not by altering the chemistry itself but by adding this self-healing property.

Wang said the next step for the research is to increase the battery's lifetime even further and to apply the self-healing concept to other batteries besides lithium-ion. However, while the concept is promising to the future of batteries, it will likely be some time -- at least five to 10 years -- before this technology might be commercially available.

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Report: Gasification R&D Focuses on Non-Recycled Plastics

Non-recycled plastics (NRPs), which make up 12.4 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), have high value as a feedstock for conversion to energy or fuel because of their potentially significant heating value. <br> (Source: Gershman, Brickner & Bratton/US

A recent report sponsored by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) focuses on emerging gasification technologies for converting waste into energy and fuel on a large scale and saving it from the landfill. Some of that waste includes non-recycled plastics.

As we told you about reporting on an earlier Lux Research study, gasification can accept a wide range of feedstocks, including biomass and municipal solid waste (MSW). According to Lux Research analyst Andrew Soare, author of that study, many major gasification producers are first targeting electricity markets, rather than fuel markets.

Click on the graph below to start the slideshow.

Using pressure, steam, and heat, these processes convert plastic waste and other materials, both liquid and solid, into synthesis gas, also known as "syngas." Syngas is then converted into one of several other types of energy or fuel, including electricity, ethanol, and diesel. Gasification is one of several energy conversion technologies for diverting materials from the landfill that can't be recycled with the current facilities and infrastructure. These materials include different kinds of non-recycled plastics, used tires, plant matter, and garbage of various kinds usually known as MSW.

The new report, authored by Gershman, Brickner & Bratton and funded by the ACC, discusses both multiple types of conversion technologies and different types of gasification processes. It reviews the 147 companies in North America that are developing these processes. So far, there are 21 pilot and demonstration facilities and 17 commercial-scale facilities either under development or being constructed.

Some of these are already operating successfully. For example, as we've previously reported, Klean Industries' gasification process uses a small amount of air to produce partial combustion of a small amount of the feedstock. By helping to break down the waste's heavy organic compounds, the oxygen optimizes the amount of syngas yielded in the process. Klean specializes in pyrolysis and gasification plants and equipment that convert plastic and used tires into fuel.

The new report also evaluates factors that can aid or hinder the commercialization of facilities using them. It states, "Facility development is challenged by public acceptance, perceived risk, and the challenge of having predictable economics comparable to current costs."

To me, one of the most interesting things about this report is an entire chapter on a key factor that's not always addressed in studies of this kind: How a gasification facility can fit into a community's infrastructure and materials flow as part of an integrated waste management (IWM) system. That phrase is a somewhat recent term that takes into account all the different types of handling waste in a given locale, such as recycling and conversion. By definition, a gasification plant depends on incoming local waste for its feedstock, and, in turn, local businesses and other organizations may depend on its energy and fuel products. So may intermediaries, such as transfer stations and materials recovery facilities (MRFs). On top of this coordination, there are other barriers, such as regulation and public perception.

The report concludes that processing mixed plastics and MSW is a more recent challenge for gasification technologies, and perhaps a more difficult one, than for processing agricultural biomass. But it states that this goal is the focus of much of the R&D in gasification technologies. That may be because successfully using those wastes as a feedstock for anything aside from mass burn waste-to-energy (WTE) technology -- often confused with gasification -- is still not widespread on a commercial scale. As some communities adopt a zero landfill policy, they are looking at multiple ways of eliminating non-recycled materials, including this one.

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