Suzanne Weiner*, Assistant Eng. & Sci. Librarian
MIT, 10-500, Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 253-9367 / stweiner@mit.edu
David Meeker, Digital Equipment Corporation
David Wallace, MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering


In a senior MIT Mechanical Engineering course on the Product Engineering Process, students work in large teams of approximately 24 individuals to design and build working prototypes of new products. The effort spans the product development process, including: generating ideas, gathering customer and market data, selecting ideas and devising concepts, building and testing mockups, customer evaluation/focus groups for mockups and embodiment design/working prototype construction. The large teams must work effectively to realize this task, learning about group dynamics, role definition, consensus building and the value of communication.

In the course it has become apparent that students are deficient in their ability to gather, analyze and utilize information or understand the economic impacts of engineering decisions. To address this problem, students are now formally introduced to information collection as a component of the product design process. The students are required to gather and analyze market, product and technical information obtained through both primary (customer surveys/interviews) and secondary (published) sources. Students utilize information technology to locate data, transfer knowledge and coordinate their activities, thereby increasing their awareness of the vast quantities of information available in published literature, on-line databases and the World Wide Web (WWW).

This paper describes how students are introduced to information gathering, analysis, and utilization. Students are provided with a WWW-based guide for marketing research and individual help from a librarian. Students are exposed to the various data sources through a team based information treasure hunt. A design professional presents a benchmarking case study representing l 0 hours of information collection, illustrating the process of gathering and distilling information to benchmark and cost products. In order to assess the effectiveness of the effort, a survey was given at both the beginning and end of the course. The initial survey measures student perceptions about the relative importance of the information gathered in the various phases of the product development process. The surveys have been used to evaluate how these perceptions changed through exposure to information gathering. The survey results indicate an increased ability to anticipate information needs and an increased awareness of information resources.


As educators, we are often surprised by the difficulty students have in applying their engineering science knowledge in a real-world context. They struggle with the vagueness, scale and imprecision of the problem definition and the multidisciplinary nature of the problems. It is felt that engineering courses requiring the use of team skills; communication skills, a systems perspective, a multidisciplinary perspective; and a commitment to quality and timeliness will help prepare students for the new engineering environment [1].

The senior mechanical engineering design course at MIT, product engineering processes (2.009 [2]), aims to provide these elements. Students work in large teams (20-25 persons) on term-long product development projects, developing a practical understanding of product development methods. This process demands commitment to schedules, budgets and most critically, requires effective communication between team members. The ability to locate, understand and distill large amounts of information is also essential to this engineering activity. Such abilities are likely to become even more important in the future [3]. However, through 2.009, it has become increasingly evident that most students are not 'information literate'. Our qualitative experience, supported by survey data reported in this paper, indicate senior students have almost no exposure to the information gathering process [4] and a naivete about the economics of engineering decisions and the business /marketing aspects of the product development process.

In the professional literature, there is increasingly a focus on the need for engineers and scientists to view marketing, management strategies and benchmarking [5-7] as integral components of the product design process. "The new thinking is not that scientists and engineers will necessarily become marketers and managers. It is rather that in today's competitive global environment, as they develop a clearer awareness of the increasing interactions between and among design, marketing, and customer needs and expectations, they inevitably become better scientists and engineers."[5]

In an effort to address information literacy, MIT librarians have been involved in the course as "information consultants" for the past 2 years. Because the product development schedule in the course is demanding it was felt that an information professional would be able to provide the needed market and technical information to the students more quickly and efficiently. Additionally, over the past year information professionals have worked with faculty to develop materials for improving information literacy. The course now includes a lecture on the concepts of finding, analyzing and organizing different types of data needed for product development. We have also developed a web based guide for market research and include a lecture illustrating the product benchmarking process.

In this paper we first provide an overview of the product development course. Then, the basics of information literacy are described. An information treasure hunt and market research guide used to teach information literacy are then presented. An outline for teaching product benchmarking is also provided. Finally, results from a survey used to assess the impact of the efforts are presented.


2.009 [2] provides students with a theoretical and practical understanding of product development combined the experience of working in large teams to develop real prototypes of new products. Its primary objectives are to: improve ability to reason about design alternatives and develop a variety of modeling and communication techniques (e.g., estimation, sketching, physical exploration); provide a directed experience for working in large teams to develop high quality product prototypes; provide an understanding of how to gather and process customer information; provide an understanding of how to relate customer information to engineering specifications; and improve ability to make effective presentations. The ability to locate, distill and disseminate information is a very important factor for success in the course.

This single term senior level course, with 150 students, builds upon two prior design and manufacturing courses. The entire class is assumed to be part of a parent company and their task is to develop a new product portfolio based upon a technological core competency. The class is formed into six divisions of approximately 25 students. Each division has a $6000 budget and is responsible for developing a product in the company's portfolio. They elect several student officers and an executive Vice President (VP) that coordinates the division and communication with the Board of Directors (BOD). The board of directors is comprised of faculty instructors and product developers from Boston area design firms.

Initially, the BOD provides a general theme for the new product portfolio. For example, in 1996 the students were told that the parent company makes portable power tools and wants to develop a new line of personal mobility products. Initially each division of 25 students first subdivides into two teams of 12-13 students. Each team forms three task forces for gathering customer information, market information and generating high-level ideas. The task forces present to their teammates and they select their three best ideas. Together the two teams in each division then must narrow their high-level ideas from six to three. Each division gives a 10 minute presentation to the BOD justifying their three ideas. After all divisions present their product ideas (with supporting market and customer data), the BOD assigns product areas to each division. These assignments form a product portfolio. For example, for the personal mobility portfolio included water mobility, people moving, vertical lifting and materials transport.

Next, the two teams in each division independently search for more focused customer and market information, as well as generate concept alternatives. The teams choose 3 concepts and construct three dimensional sketch models, or soft models, for their concepts. These concepts and information is formally presented to the BOD and the other divisions in the class. After this presentation, each team picks their preferred concept, usually a combination of several other concepts, and develops two mockups--a visual model and a functional model or models. The visual model is intended to look like the final product but does not operate. It is used to evaluate the appearance and human use characteristics of the design. The functional models, also referred to as bench-level prototypes, are used to resolve technical issues and demonstrate the operational principles of the design. They work, but they do not look like the final design. Once again, each team presents their visual model and functional models to the BOD and the other divisions.

To this point in the class, each division has predominately functioned as two independent teams of 12-13 students. However, each division must develop only a single product. At this point there are two fairly well developed competing products in each division. The two teams in the division must present their case and collectively decide what their final product will be. This can be an extremely difficult negotiation. Sometimes the final concept is a hybrid, other times one clearly wins out over the other. Regardless, the entire division of 25 students must rally behind the decision if they are to successfully detail and fabricate a true prototype of their new product. This prototype, which must both look and function like the real product, is a large undertaking and is not possible unless the full division of 25 students contributes.

Two weeks before the end of the course the divisions experience a technical design review with the BOD, where they must demonstrate a functioning product prototype and discuss detailed design issues. Finally, at the end of the course, each division gives a highly polished presentation of their product to an audience of approximately 100 industry guests, ranging from engineers to industrial designers and venture capitalists. In addition to demonstrating their final prototype, they must provide supporting market data, plans for introducing the product and predictions of return on investment (ROI). Two of the final prototypes from 1996, a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) called Sea-HOG and a scooter called the Zypher are shown in figures la and lb.

Figure 1a Prototype diver propulsion vehicles (DPV), called the Sea-HOG, created by one of the divisions in 2.009

Figure 1b Prototype scooter, called the Zypher, created by one of the divisions in 2.009

In addition to this very intense product development experience, the students receive lectures on: product life-cycle and development phases, teamwork and organization, product platforms, approximate models and estimation, feasibility analysis, specifications, QFD, scheduling, idea models (soft models), mockups (hard models), prototpying, industrial design and formgiving, costing, professional practice, notebooks, ethics and presentation techniques. It should also be apparent from the description of the course that the ability to find appropriate information is essential. Thus, two critical lectures added to the course address information literacy and product benchmarking.


In an effort to assess the information gathering abilities of the students a survey was conducted at the beginning of the class. The survey asked general questions about the students writing and research experience, library and reference use, as well as their perceptions of the importance of both market and technical research in product development.

Approximately 60% of the students had written research papers, mostly in humanities courses. The median number of papers per student was 2 with a median length of 15 pages using 6 references. In addition to research papers, the students were asked about general library use. Although the majority of students use at least one of the MIT libraries, only 16% had ever requested and inter-library loan and only 29% had requested that a librarian perform an electronic database search. In general students lacked exposure to gathering and analyzing information

The survey included a table of common information sources. Students were asked to indicate their familiarity on a scale from unfamiliar to used frequently. Over 70% of the students were unfamiliar with standard resources such as the SIC Manual, Census of Manufacturers and Ward's Business Directory and Dialog (a database provider). One student thought that Lexis/Nexis was a car! About half the students were unfamiliar with Moody's Manuals, Thomas Register of American Manufacturer's and Mark's Handbook. Interestingly 86% of the students indicated they used Netscape frequently.

The students were also asked to indicate the importance of both market and technical research in the product development process defined by six stages: concept development; system-level specification; embodiment; prototyping; design for 'X'; and production. In concept development the students considered market research much more important than technical research. They considered both market and technical research helpful for design embodiment. Technical research ranked on average, slightly higher for the remaining phases but especially for production. However, the perceived importance of information in any phase is surprisingly low. These data are illustrated in figure 2 (5 is very important).

Figure 2 Student perception of the important of market and technical information at different stages of the product development process.

In combination, these data supported the qualitative impression of the instructors that there is a need to improve student abilities to locate and process information.


Engineers engage in a "permanent process of mobilizing, transforming, and producing information" [8]. The ability to define an information need and then locate, analyze/contextualize organize and present the information has been coined as being "information literate" [9-12]. This process becomes extremely important when dealing with information unfamiliar in scope, appearance, volume or context. Historically, design students often panicked and ignored valuable data because it was in a form with which they were unfamiliar or it was spread out over 25-30 different documents. They failed to apply analytical engineering skills to information analysis.

Practicing engineers often value accessibility over quality when selecting information sources and tend to favor searching for specific pieces of data in order to answer specific questions [8]. This is a model with roots placed firmly in the educational process, where specific information is required and typically even provided to solve problems associated with assignments. This model works quite well in many courses but is not representative of an open-ended product development problem. The student teams must identify markets and design and fabricate prototypes of their product concepts. They must compare their design to products on the market and make cost estimates. The necessary information is dispersed across business and technical literature. Each team and division requires different information and thus its retrieval requires information literacy on the part of the students. Searches, both electronically and the "old fashioned way" typically yield massive amounts of information from which relevant data must be extracted.

Developments in information technology are creating new and more efficient ways to collect and disseminate information. Access to electronic forms of data is fast, easy and convenient [8]. The use of the WWW as a communication medium has increased rapidly and a simple web search can yield hundreds, if not thousands, of documents in a few seconds [13]. It is relatively simple to become buried in information and thus it is necessary to become an educated information consumer. Students must be able to discriminate between both types of data and the source of the data.

There are five steps to finding information. The steps are: defining information needs; locating information; analyzing the information to extract pertinent data; organizing the data into a usable format; and then presenting/communicating the information so that it can be applied to address the needs. In the gathering and analysis of unfamiliar information the students need to consciously focus on the information process. To create this focus, specific information exercises and lectures were developed.


Team-based information treasure hunt

An information treasure hunt was, designed to be an impossible task in the assignment time frame without teamwork. The challenge was to locate very specific pieces of market, technical, company, industry, and product data for coffee makers and toasters. Huge quantities of information exist on both of these products in the printed literature and on the WWW.

The students were divided into randomly assigned groups of 10-14 individuals and were expected to work as a team on the assignment. The treasure hunt was distributed to the groups during lecture with the results due by midnight of the same day. They received a packet of information which included several questions for each of the information categories. The groups were randomly assigned to one of the two products. The information packet included the specific sections as well as the rules, the evaluation criteria, and some tips to follow. Included with the tips was a short list of both print and electronic sources. The questions and the general instructions, rules, resources and results can be viewed on the course web site [14]. There were prizes for the winning teams.

The purpose of the treasure hunt was to illustrate:

Most of the teams did surprisingly well on the treasure hunt. The student groups, mostly unfamiliar with each other at this early point in the semester, were required to trust each other, organize, and complete/submit the information treasure hunt in 10 hours. The top team missed only one piece of information. This team, like the other teams, divided into task-forces and each task-force specialized on a specific aspect of the treasure hunt. However, the best teams exhibited superior group coordination. In the winning team individuals were responsible for different sections but there were also individuals assigned to collect and compile the task force results via email. This ensured that work had been done on all sections and that all of the results were In on time.

The poorest group was correct in all that was answered but they did not submit results for 50% of the categories. In this case, each task force submitted their results separately and the team as a whole suffered because half of their members did not even attempt the assignment. This provided a powerful lesson about teamwork and group responsibilities early in the course.

WWW-based market research guide

In past years the students seemed to be very unfamiliar with many basic sources for finding both technical and marketing information. The world wide web was the chosen as a medium to create a resource for introducing the students to the basics of market research. The concept behind the Market Research Guide for Engineers [15] was to create a focus for the information process, and to provide hints about where content can be found. The guide contextualizes components of the research process by answering questions such as: why is documentation important?; what can you get from company information?; what is the difference between marketing and market research?; why is this important? The index page of the research guide is illustrated in figure 3.

The guide provides pointers to selected printed and electronic sources and links to more substantial library-prepared guides at the end of each section. A case study is also used to illustrate the process of defining the need for information and locating the data. This case study should help the students understand the practical uses of the highlighted sources. An information checklist provided additional guidance on specific types of information they would need. Students were not instructed on how to use the specific resources because the need for information in the product development should provide the impetus for the students to learn to use the specific resources.

Figure 3 The web-based market research guide. up

Lecture on product benchmarking

The background materials on information literacy addressed by the treasure hunt and the market research guide were then directly applied to product development in a lecture on product benchmarking. The product benchmarking process is outlined in this section.

Building better products requires a good comparative perspective of other companies and their products [16]. Approximately 80 % of final product cost is established after only 5% of engineering budgets have been spent, emphasizing the need for high quality information early in the development process [l7-20]. A study by Cooper [21] showed that the most successful product development firms had an emphasis on up-front homework, both market and technical, before projects moved into the development phase. The process included preliminary market research and financial and business analysis as outlined below.

1. Preliminary market assessment
2. Preliminary technical assessment
3. Detailed market studies
4. Detailed technical studies
5. Financial and business analysis

These steps create a clear and sharp early product definition before development work begins. "Failure to define the product before development is the major cause of both new product failure and serious delays in new product development."[21]

The benchmarking & cost estimating lecture follows these principles. A case study for underwater tow scooters (Diver Propulsion Vehicles, or DPVs) was used to show students how to apply information gathering techniques and the market research guide to product benchmarking. This case study represents a 10 hour benchmarking effort. Product benchmarking requires a good understanding of information retrieval, cost estimating, product design, design for manufacturing/assembly (DFMA) and some good old fashion detective work. This information clarifies the industry and market, competitors and manufacturers as well as products. It also helps to form the initial product concept.

A typical benchmarking information search covers manufacturer trade organizations, electronic databases, web/internet sites, industry trade publications and magazines, and trade shows. A good place to start is the Encyclopedia of Associations and Organizations in order to locate the group that represents the market under consideration. The group members are companies in the market and they are usually willing to share information.

For the DPV market, the trade organization is called the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) [22]. The Director of Education and Market Research was very helpful in providing marketing and demographic information. This included substantial marketing data about information about the industry as a whole (table 1). DEMA also supplied the names of several manufactures of DPVs.

Additionally, a search of several electronic databases, such as Patent Abstracts (150 patents found), ABI/Inform, BCC Market Research, Magazine Database, IAC Prompt was conducted. These data bases provide thousands of records matching pre-defined search parameters. All these records must still be read and filtered to extract the relevant information. In many cases articles retrieved are not relevant. For example DPV also stands for Desert Patrol Vehicle, Design Pour Vous. Often secondary searches are needed based on leads from the first search.

Table 1: General Market and Demographic Data for DPVs obtained from DEMA

Patents are also often useful because they logically classified provide a history dating to the founding of the patent system. They can show the history of the industry--key technical innovations plus solutions that have not been brought to market. For example, the first DPV was patented just after WWII and roughly 150 patents covering a wide variety of concepts were extracted. Patent searches also prevent the problem of working for several years on an solution that is already patented.

The world-wide-web is also a powerful source of information, even though source quality requires extra attention on the web. Two primary web search engines are Alta-Vista [23] and Excite [24]. Often the same search keywords on different search engines will not yield the same results. Further, one must experiment with a range of keywords and phrases. DPVs, DPDs, underwater scooters, underwater tow, diving tugs, diver propulsion vehicles, diver vehicles, torpedoes, one man submarines all yield relevant information. The web is very dynamic and thus information is constantly being added and deleted. In addition to product information site, mail groups, such as the Tech-Divers mail group, can be used to ask questions and obtain information about what features people liked, how they were used, reliability and repair.

Magazines are often a good source of industry data. For the DPV case study, several were and a relevant list was compiled for the industry. Articles discussed various DPV models and made comparisons or evaluated new products.

Telephone calls are also useful to follow up leads, particularly after enough homework is done to sound reasonably informed. These calls may uncover additional information or clarify facts.

In addition to finding information, it must be filtered and sorted. This is often the most time consuming part of the benchmarking process. Some references may only have a one sentence "factoid". The process of collecting information is often circular and results in numerous dead ends. The DPV data was parsed to construct a list of distinct market segments. These are 1 ) recreational diver 150 foot max. Ievel, 2) Technical divers below 150 foot / underwater work, 3) cave divers, 4) handicap divers, 5) silt blowers for salvage, 6) military. Manufacturers in the market place included: Apollo, Dacor, Tekna, Torpedo, American Underwater Vehicles, AquaZepp, Oceanic, ScubaPro, Farallon, Mode Industries, and others such as other BOB or LEGO®. One of the most powerful ways of compiling data is to construct a table of specifications and attributes for the market. Table 2 provides such a chart for some of the products in the DPV market.

Table 2: Chart summarizing data for selected products in the DPV market



Apollo (AV-1) Dacor




Body Length (inches) 61.86 46 13.4 dia. 24 in. length   20 x 20 x 21    
120 65 39.5 42   54 165
No Battery
65   18.7     25-30  
(low-high) min.
60-115 40-100 25-60 80 80 20-40 200
Range (min-max) miles 3.5-10.5 1-3 miles 2.48     1.8-3.0  
max. operating depth (ft) 400 130-1000 160 170 130
/tested 325
Speed 0-3.3 200-250 fpm 1.2-2.5 2 3.25 1.5-2.7 1.7
Speed control trigger   propeller pitch   yes lever throttles dual /9 pitch propeller  
Static Thrust lb.   75-80 17.6-39.6     15-50  
Buoyancy 2 lb. neg.   1.4 lb. neg 1 12 lb. positive neutral  
Batteries lead acid or silver zinc 2-12 volt 18 AH sealed p/n 7905-00 12V 24AH lead Acid 32AH 12 v 33 A lead acid sealed lead acid gel lead oxide
Battery Meter yes LED yes     LED level indicator  
Battery Charge Time 7 hours       4 hours, 55 min. run time 4 hrs. 90% 16 hrs. 100%  
Motor 1/3 hp. permanent mag. permanent 8 pole 12v permanent       2-motors
Drive planetary gear direct Planetary 1-4.8 direct      
Body Type Alum. 6061 .250 in. thick Alum. 6061-T6 511 ABS Resin Fiberglass Molded polyethylene two piece plastic  
Accessor-ies yes yes yes yes   yes built in light  
Cost $3995 $2,700 $1890-1259 $995-795 $1395-1995 $1995 $6,000

On the basis of this information it is now possible to understand design and technical issues. Recreational machines with a maximum depth of approximately 150 feet are made of molded plastic. The professional machines capable of greater depth are typically made from aluminum. All of the models in the market use lead/acid sealed batteries, although several have options for higher energy density batteries such as silver/zinc. Several of the units vary the speed by manually changing the pitch of the propeller. Others control speed by either an inefficient resistive bank or an electronic speed control. Powertrains use either efficient direct drive electric motor or planetary gear systems. Many of the designs also offer accessories such a tow bars, head lamps, camera mounts, buoyancy collars, various recharge options and carrying handles/bags. From this data, simple metrics such as cost/lb. or cost/range can also often be devised.

Typically, the next step in the process is to acquire some of the competitive machines for testing, disassembly and a detailed study of the design. This can be used to estimate original equipment manufacturers (OEM) costs and determine market profit margins. The DPV case study was limited to approximately 10 hr. of preparation, preventing a teardown and detailed calculation of product mark-up. However, from the various data sources and information collected the a rough estimated markup for DPVs could be made (2-4X range). Volumes for some of these machines range from 100 to 800 units per year.

With all this data at hand one can create realistic world-class design concepts and specifications for the new product. A case study, such as the DPV exercise, illustrates to the students how even in less than ten hours work one can obtain an extremely useful set of information, creating a basis for well informed-decisions.


A second survey was given at the end of the course to assess how information was gathered, what resources were useful and whether there was a shift in the students' perception of the importance of information gathering in the product development process.

Students reported spending a median of 50 hours gathering information. Within each division a subset of students specialized on information gathering. Overall, over 60 of the students described the information gathering resources, benchmarking lecture and librarian support as useful. This percentage is for all students in the course, including those that did not specialize in information gathering.

Analysis also revealed that student perceptions about information gathering in product development shifted over the semester. Students reported that market research was not only valuable at the concept phase but also for system-level specification. A slight shift in market research's importance for production was also noted. The students ranked technical information higher in the second survey for the concept, system-level specification and prototype phases. Overall, the perceived importance of information collection increased. These trends are illustrated in figure 4.

Figure 4 Comparison of student perceptions of the importance of market and technical information in different product development phases.

Student familiarity with standard resources also changed. In addition to testing for familiarity (as in the survey before the course) students were asked to rate the usefulness of the resources. Students found the WWW a particularly valuable resource and gained experience with Lycos and Alta-vista in addition to their pre-existing awareness of with Netscape.

Students also found the Thomas' Register of American Manufacturer's, ASME Conference papers, ISO Standards and the ASTM handbook useful for their projects. Other resources mentioned as useful included Moody's Manuals and Mark's Handbook. In the original survey most students were unfamiliar with all of these resources.


This paper describes how students are introduced to information gathering, analysis, and utilization in a senior product engineering course (2.009) at MIT. In this course students work in large teams to conceive, design and build working prototypes of new products. The effort spans the product development process, including: generating ideas, gathering customer and market data, selecting ideas and devising concepts, building and testing mockups, customer evaluation/focus groups for mockups and embodiment design/working prototype construction.

It is increasingly recognized that successful product development firms emphasize up-front homework, both market and technical, before projects move into the development phase. The ability to locate, distill and communicate information in a team environment appears to be of increasing importance. The ability to effectively obtain and use information is referred to as information literacy. The five steps to information literacy are: defining information needs locating information; analyzing the information to extract pertinent data; organizing the data into a usable format; and then presenting/communicating the information so that it can be applied to address the needs.

However, qualitative experience and an initial class survey data suggest that there is a need to explicitly teach information gathering techniques. Students were inexperienced in information gathering and were very limited in their knowledge of basic tools for finding information. Over 70% of the students were unfamiliar with standard resources such as the SIC Manual, Census of Manufacturers and Ward's Business Directory and Dialog (a database provider). In order to address this issue MIT librarians have taken active roles in the course as information consultants. Further, three different types of teaching materials were introduced in an effort to improve information literacy.

First, students were exposed the various data sources through a team-based information treasure hunt. They were also provided with a WWW-based guide for marketing research. Finally, a practicing design engineer developed a benchmarking case study to illustrate that application of information gathering to the product development process.

Survey results at the end of the course indicate that students gained a better understanding of the role of technical and market research in product development. The treasure hunt, WWW-based research guide, benchmarking lecture and the librarians appear to have had a positive contribution in teaching the students about information gathering. Additionally, there appears to be an overall improvement in the quality of student work which may, in part, be attributable to their improved ability to gather and utilize information. A student's comment on the final survey provides a strong endorsement, "... we did a ton of research and it helped tremendously in our coherence, detail, and effectiveness." Perhaps undergraduate students should be exposed to information gathering and analysis before their senior year?


Funding for the projects undertaken by the students in this course was provided through the gracious support of Jerome and Dolly Lemelson. The survey development and analysis was completed by Luanne Isherwood with the support of a research grant from the MIT Libraries. Sincere thanks are also extended to Warren Seering; Woodie Flowers; Anne Wolpert; Carol Fleishauer and Ruth Seidman.


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