Unorthodox Use: TRIZ for Non-intended Product Use

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  • By Claudia Hentschel


    Lots of companies deliver products and services that serve a determined purpose or function – but they often are wrong about how the product is finally used. Such diversions sow the seeds of creativity to generate ideas for new product outcomes and problem solutions. This potential, however, is only scarcely exploited. Based on a survey on consumers' and developers' opinions on unorthodox use, a new method can facilitate transferring product functions to unexpected application fields, which helps galvanize the ideation process. It shows many similarities to the systematic way of thinking, to the contradiction logic and to selected knowledge- and analogy-based tools in the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ).


    Unorthodox use, systematic innovation, ideation method, TRIZ


    Every company prides itself on giving customers products that serve a defined purpose and fulfill a known need. Tennis balls for playing tennis. Toothpaste for cleaning teeth. Beverages for quenching thirst. Aspirin for headaches. Drilling machines for drilling holes. Communication products for communicating. Pizza boxes for packing pizzas. Lorry tarps for covering freight. Cooking oil for cooking. A drug named sildenafil citrate as a treatment for heart conditions by dilating blood vessels and making more blood to flow. Robot end-effectors and control software for automated surface mounted device (SMD) assembly. A text messaging system built into mobile phones for internal maintenance purposes for technicians to troubleshoot problems.

    After all, making a product fulfill intended purposes and functions will guarantee success – or so one would think. But consumers do not always use the product for the purpose for which it was intended. What if a customer uses the product in unexpected ways and for unexpected purposes? Torn tennis balls on a trailer coupling for protection. Toothpaste to cure CD scratches. A beverage to clean lime scale. Aspirin for blood dilution. The drilling machine to stir paint when refurbishing. The telephone device for displaying music. An empty pizza-box for transporting laptops. Lorry tarps for sewing bags. Cooking oil as a moisturizer for dry skin. Sildenafil citrate as a treatment for male erectile dysfunction. SMD assembly systems strongly impacted how chocolates are automatically packed into chocolate moulds. Also, the short message service (SMS) was discovered by irrepressible hackers and teens, inventing their own abbreviated code to punch out messages. Mobile companies did not even know how to charge for an SMS at first, because the idea was not part of their business models.

    Generally speaking, developing companies have a limited view of and sometimes late access to information explaining how products are to be used. There are two questions to consider:

    1. Is non-intended product use actively considered in industrial product development?
    2. Are consumers aware of using their products in ways other than originally intended? (Or are they fixated on the way products and services are "normally" used and described in operating instructions?)

    The author initiated a survey on consumers' and developers' awareness of unorthodox product use, their experiences and intentions.1 The use of products for other than the intended purpose is not to be underestimated. The creative act is transformed into a methodology that supports product developers thinking of new applications to their solutions and, at the same time, new product outcomes – ideally tracing unorthodox product use for generating new ideas in systematic product innovation.

    Ideation Within Systematic Innovation

    Systematic Innovation Issues

    Systematic product innovation identifies, analyzes and solves problems, but the process from idea generation to problem solution often remains the most unorganized task in product development. Developing new products involves ideation, which involves failure – not something that processes like to embrace.

    As noted by MIT professor Sergei Ikovenko, a business needs to start with 3,000 raw ideas in order to bring one product to market.2 This level of effectiveness anywhere else would be considered ridiculous; who would accept 3,000 scheduled flights with only one taking off? When it comes to new product development, however, this ratio is often regarded as acceptable. Many ideas are generated and discarded in the hope that the best idea will eventually be found.

    The idea releasing principles of existing creativity tools can be divided basically into associative (e.g., method 6-3-5, brainstorming) and confronting (e.g., synectics, emotive word analysis) methods. Further grouping criterion includes intuitive (e.g., method 6-3-5, brainstorming, synectics) and discursive (e.g., morphological box and matrix) methods. TRIZ is part of the latter group and the most recent rediscovery from Russia in European product development.2 With the use of an innovation methodology such as TRIZ, if a solution to a problem is needed then only a few ideas need be generated. Although the optimal ratio of one problem to one idea is not realistic, TRIZ systematically pre-selects the promising direction that an innovative solution should be heading for, improving overall problem solving effectiveness.

    Outcome-oriented Idea Generation

    When an idea is looked for, people often ask too much of themselves – placing the demand of creating something really and completely new and innovative on the spot. In most cases, an idea is less than most people expect of it; defining an idea as neither more nor less than the new combination of known elements, the request to deliver a new idea sounds more feasible. It is not the idea itself that has to be completely new, but rather the combination of known elements to satisfy the definition requirement. Instead of inventing things it often makes sense to transfer a given solution of another field to the one where a solution is to be found. This adaptation is much cheaper and faster than inventing anew.

    Ideas determine the result and trigger new processes, whereas in traditional management, it is usually the intended result that determines the process, the planning and organization. With product innovation, the path toward output-oriented processes also should be considered, as they promise additional opportunities for disruptions and new market creation – well before their competition. A recent publication even speaks of this approach being the only chance in innovation management to create products that customers really want.3 Here, the term ideation stands for idea generation and means "the process of creating new ideas that are focused on addressing a set of targeted underserved outcomes, jobs and constraints," rather than slight changes within a given field.4 This leads to a method that creates completely new outcomes by some sort of systematic confrontation method as the idea releasing principle. The confrontation is realized by combining a given product function and a purpose different from the intended.

    After a lecture in which the well-known pizza-box example provided by a TRIZ team was presented, the author had to change lecture rooms quickly.4 Putting the laptop into the empty pizza-box brought for demonstration purposes was an automatic act. Being convinced of the new lightweight, cheap, easy to handle transportation device, the author was amused to realize that nobody expected the pizza box to contain an expensive laptop. What in hardware hacking would probably be considered as an attempt to modify a computer case, here it additionally turned out to be a perfect camouflage against theft. This little personal experience sensitized the author to customers' real behavior with products – without knowing the outcome at that point.

    Usefulness of Product Repurposing

    History reveals that well-known ideas were often born when product functions were combined with new applications. The following adaptations are known the world over:

    These adaptations are, at best, familiar to those who are interested in invention anecdotes. In the future the individual and the corporation will co-exists as a source of innovation.5

    Looking at art, one finds also many examples for the use of products in other than the related contexts. Picasso (1881-1973), for example, created the famous bullock head (tête de taureau) in 1942 from only a bicycle seat and its handlebars. Here, as in other pieces of art, it is likely that overflowing creativity was the root cause for using items in new and strange contexts. No matter how the artist created the idea, the outcome now is appreciated internationally.

    Advertisement has long recognized the eye-catching effect of products and/or objects used in other than expected contexts. Advertisement has long recognized the eye catching effect of products and/or objects used in other than expected contexts. When Deutsche Bahn AG introduced their mobile ticket reservation function with a postcard in 2006, one side of the postcard asked phone users if their mobile knew something special. On the other side it said it now knew how to make train reservations. Additionally, the postcard asked for new responses by consumers, promising attractive prizes to be won by the most creative replies.

    The inhabitants of the former German Democratic Republic are often quoted as creative improvisers due to supply bottlenecks. In general, difficulties with existing products and inappropriateness of suitable products available lead to non-intended product use. Additionally, a lack of money to buy convenient products, lacking access to a suitable product due to finding oneself in other than the intended surroundings or having unusual items at hand by chance when trying to solve a problem are also triggers to a change in application field. Last but not least, play instinct is an initiator – children seem to be experts when it comes to the creative act of inventing new functions for given objects. Observing a toddler plugging colored pencils in the grass pretending to make flowers grow cannot be excelled by any adult – or can it?

    Some even state that a "right" use or purpose does not exist; each usage only can be revealed in a context coded by normality, handed down by institutions or restricted by law. Each new application thus invents a field beyond this limitation.6

    Finding an Appropriate Term

    Prevailing Denial in Innovation Management

    Only occasional publications are found where non-intended product use is mentioned proactively. Mainly computer freaks and jurists make non-intended product use the subject of their discussions. The former address pros and cons of open source programming, or good and bad examples of misusing web technologies. The latter mainly address liabilities for product failures.

    The few exceptions that address the subject are:

    Drawing a Distinction to Recycling

    When using products in a different than proscribed manner, some parallels to recycling may be seen. An article in the Journal of Engineering Design defined recycling as reuse, further use or reutilization of products or parts of products in cycles, with two cycles – product and material recycling. The latter refers to destroying the product's original shape and is not relevant for non-intended product use. Product recycling, however, refers to maintaining the product's original shape and feeding it back into a new usage cycle. As the product provides the same as the intended function in reuse, it is excluded here, too, as only different as the intended functions are of interest. Similarity to recycling is only to be found in further use, as the consumer finds a different function that was not necessarily intended in the design phase.

    The differences from recycling are:

    In further use the product is used in a function that is usually to be considered of lower level than the original product function. An additional function can sometimes occur here, sometimes without interfering with the intended function. In most cases, however, the decision to recycle a product by means of further use is irreversible, as seen in the tennis ball example mentioned above. But there are also instances in which the consumer can switch between the originally intended and the different function – as a product now has additional functionality.

    Further use is considered as an end-of-life technology. In most cases, however, the decision to recycle a product by means of further use is irreversible – when the product, for whatever reason, can no longer be used for its intended purpose. When using a product in a way other than the intended purpose, the original function may be destroyed. But it may also remain available, with the consumer being able to sometimes switch between the functions. Here, additional functionality of a product is involved. Actual terms show limitations: both terms are completely unknown to designers and product users, as exaption, or they convey a minor, inferior aspect, as "bricolage" and subversion, or even recycling. Another term is needed.

    Defining a Well-known Phenomenon

    Product conversion was the first selected term, taking into account that formerly separated product functions converge to an ever larger extent. But this term is already associated with the transformation of military goods for civilian use and the move from one ecclesiastical confession to another. Another English term was sought, first by asking consumers about their understanding of the German word "zweckentfremdung." (See Figure 1.) The author-conducted survey revealed that 66 percent of normal consumers understand this term as the use of products for (many) more than the main purpose(s).1 About 57 percent also understand it as product usage against the description in operating instructions.

     Figure 1: Consumer Understanding
     of Unorthodox Use

    (percent, n = 97, multiple references possible)

    Thirty-nine persons from the 97 questioned selected two options, with 21 persons (54 percent) stating that additional functionality and usage against operating instructions is considered as "zweckentfremdung." Tuning of products and adding parts to the product was only selected by about 23 percent and is a minor consideration. Many multi-functional products were never considered as "zweckentfremdung" – the integration of a camera into a telephone, for example, is not considered as non-intended use of the telephone, probably because it is already familiar.

    The intention is to highlight the purpose diversion aspect, much like traffic diversion, where the original path is still valid, but reveals less importance or attractiveness at the moment. "Unorthodox use," therefore, is chosen here to remain distinct from recycling, to separate it from misuse and even abuse, and to highlight the useful aspect and additional functionality in product use. Unorthodox use comprises repurposing of a product, a product function or service for a task or application that it was never intended to perform; it can be as simple as using a lighter to open a bottle cap or as complicated as rigging a telephone system to provide free calls.

    Unorthodox Use Awareness

    The Consumers' Opinion

    This paper reports that 97 percent of the people said they have at some time used a product in a way other than the given purpose.1 About 300 examples demonstrated what they understood by unorthodox product use from their points of view – showing that unorthodox product use obviously plays a routine role in product use. Four examples were named repeatedly:

    1. A lighter used as a bottle cap opener
    2. Pliers used as a hammer
    3. Soda to clean lime scale off of sinks and toilets
    4. Condoms to protect weapons from desert sand

    On the other hand, the same consumers admitted that they rarely deviate from given functions and purposes. Only 7 percent stated that they deviate from given functions often; this is a small number in comparison to the large number of non-intended use examples.

     Figure 2: Selected Unorthodox Use Examples

    (absolute, n = 97, multiple references possible)

    When asked about the awareness of the persons non-intended product use, the results were evenly balanced: 50 percent were aware of their product purpose diversion while the other 50 percent do this unconsciously and only later realize the deviation.

    In 1999, CBS Nightline challenged product development company IDEO to redesign the ordinary shopping cart in just five days. The design team took note of unsafe and inefficient – but unconscious – usage in grocery stores. Not only were baby seats transported in the carts, but they were also left in the main aisles so that customers could rush quickly to sections of the store, fetch items and then find the cart that they had left centrally parked. The redesigned cart had two child seats with some type of play surface and small removable baskets that could be taken to the middle of aisles and later replaced in the cart.

    Jane Fulton Suri, of the design firm IDEO, states in Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design that conscious or not, using a product in a different way than its purpose is the seed of creating new applications, if not innovations. Adapting a product to a new need or situation relates to what is known by context awareness; human factors' related context is structured into three categories:

    Unorthodox product use seems mainly triggered by alterations of these three categories. A product's user/consumer may:

    1. Have contradictory needs or tasks to fulfill, in a given environment, when a suitable product is not at hand.
      • For example, parents do not want their toddlers to wear diapers and at the same time do not want their children to wet their pants. Pulling a diaper up and down is how consumers might have dealt with this contradiction before the solution was transferred into a pull-up diaper product.
    2. Be in a contradictory environment/situation, in which the user has to fulfill a given task without an adequate product at hand.
      • For example, a person has many items to handle and transport. Using a pizza box as a transport device for the laptop is one a small step.
    3. Have contradictory information about how to apply a given product.
      • For example, people use the same material of the same family game in different ways and, thus, applying different rules to the game; the deviation may have heavy consequences when a product such as medicine is altered. Here, the extent of awareness comes into play again.

    The contradiction logic in all of these examples is clear to all TRIZniks. Any unorthodox product use is an important step towards personalization of products as it creates an adequate personal interface between product and user.12 Do professional product developers see this too?

    The Developers' Opinion

    Traditional approaches to product development provide for known functions and needs. These are good for developing products that will be used in defined ways. Considering unorthodox use is useful as it brings to light new uses for a product – uses that can officially be designed and marketed. Functions useful in one application may be also useful to all users of the application. However, 75 percent of the questioned companies stated that unorthodox use is not considered in their product development processes, so it is hardly surprising that close to 90 percent of the analyzed product developers understand zweckentfremdung as "usage of products against the operating instructions," as seen in Figure 3.1

     Figure 3: Developers' Understanding
     of Unorthodox Use

    (in percent, n = 8, multiple references possible)

    As developing companies define the function(s) of a product and formulate those in their operating instructions, in can be stated that the consumers' and developers' understanding of the term is basically the same, with slightly more consumers (66 percent) than developers (62.5 percent) considering additional functionality of the product.1 Tuning of products and adding parts to the product was addressed by 75 percent of the developers, but only by 22.7 percent of the consumers.

    While for consumers unorthodox product use is a step toward personalization, developers partly consider it as something that should be avoided. Fifty percent of the companies questioned refer to legal prevention of unorthodox use, e.g., by general terms and conditions of business, and probably have warranty claims in mind. More than 30 percent state that product diversion should by all means be avoided and that all measures are to be taken in the product development phase to later hinder consumers from using products in other than the intended purposes. In general, two reasons block unorthodox product use from the developing company's point of view:

    All questioned companies support the idea of looking at unorthodox product use as a method for idea generation, but less than one-third actively consider this aspect in their professional work. When asked how product diversion is revealed from the customers, the majority refers to customer surveys and internet forums as appropriate methods. But with the limited awareness of product diversion, additional ways to asking customers (e.g., trend scouts and workshops) have to be found to make use of this kind of idea generation peg.

    Ideation Implications

    Going Personal

    Unorthodox use can be thought as a profound expression of personalization, as a person adapts and shapes a product to his own will.12 It is a way of controlling a product. Personalizing technical products takes into account that people are human and have different, variable and varying needs. In this context, usability is a widely known aspect in product development. There are two possibilities to ensure more usability exists:

    The first category is under way in research and development. Consider collaborative filtering approaches, e.g., applies offers each customer a product choice that might meet her interests based on past purchase behavior.

    The latter category, of interest here, is less offensively discovered and refers to examples like exchanging and decorating cellular phone housings (e.g., with rhinestones), the adaptation of software (e.g., downloading new sounds, rearranging menu items or personal screensavers). Since all products and services can be used unorthodoxly, the question is if this should be encouraged, and if so, how. To develop a method for tracing unorthodox product use offensively, it may be fruitful to take a glance at those reasons that make people unable to imagine alternative functions for given products.

    Mental Blocks in New Context Imagination

    Consumers and designers alike are running into at least three kinds of mental blocks when attempting to use a product in a way different than the intended purpose:

    Breaking through, or at least being aware of, these mental blocks in imagination is a first step toward the exploitation of unorthodox product use for idea generation.

    TRIZ-related Ideation

    Accepting Wild Ideas

    A company must accept two main implications before embarking on a product development process that includes a problem solving methodology (such as TRIZ) and actively capturing diversions from a product's intended use:

    1. Using such a methodology means that a company is aware of innovation, but also must accept the responsibility for coming up with new products and services that may have nothing to do with its original focus. For many companies, this constitutes a radical shift in terms of product development and strategic thinking.
    2. A methodology may capture weird product outcomes as well as or in addition to problem solutions. This is also a shift from traditional product development processes.4,15,16

    If a company is aware of these implications, it has to find its way between the traditional and fragile new fields, and/or adjacent or totally different markets provoked by this method. Thus, this method is intensifying the dilemma between preserving the common product field and supporting new ideas that might enlarge or even change the field of activity.17

    When a micro-electronics company looked for a solution to remove micro-bubbles from liquid, they found it in the wine making industry – more precisely, in champagne production. Because that industry knows how to handle micro-bubbles well, the solution was more easily transferred than inventing a solution anew.2 It is because the micro-electronics industry is so far away from champagne industry that nobody thought of this adaptation earlier.

    This adaptation procedure can also be used the other way around where, for example, champagne production offensively looks for new application fields of their special knowledge of function. Only by accepting that important innovations often arise outside and beyond the known company focus, can one now look at the methodology.

    6-C Method for Tracing Unorthodox Use Potential

    Reverse engineering takes a product function or effect and tries to find new applications for it. The 6-C method, shown in Figure 4, leads a product development team to both incremental and breakthrough innovations:

    1. Capture: Systematically keep or strengthen an eye for observing customers' habits, including instances of unorthodox, accidental use whenever possible.9 Here, the actual outcome of the product use is important, not what it was supposed to come out by the designers' imagination.
    2. Concede: Acknowledge and take advantage of a product's knowledge and develop a new style of product analysis by exploiting physical and mechanical effects and features. See the product as a bundle of effects, features and functions, enabling new applications rather than a bundle of intended functions by abstracting from the latter.
    3. Co-opt: Make use of the effects present in a given product design and transfer these effects and features into other contexts, scenarios, places and/or categories to meet a new objective. For example, try to convert given effects into a category that is different from the originally intended one: furniture, transportation, scientific instrument, personal basic commodity and clothing, toys and games, devices, tools or pieces of equipment.
    4. Conceive: Try to interpret a product's effects or one of its selected features as a new practical function or a practical contribution to a new category. Create new mixtures of effects and features from a professional point of view. Transfer them to original surroundings and contexts and alter product features and effects that contribute to a certain need or create a new customer need within a given context.
    5. Chart: Organize and rate the results of the relative attractiveness of each product diversion opportunity. The diversion attractiveness refers to the relative usefulness for the customers and how satisfied they are by existing products. Originality and practical orientation could also help in evaluating the outcomes.
    6. Choose: Select the most promising results to jump-start innovation by generating new product concepts in detail.

     Figure 4: 6-C Method

    Tracing the Unorthodox Use of Cellular Phones

    Consider the 6-C method related to cellular phones.

    1. Capture: In certain circumstances some people display sort of an affectionate attitude toward the cellular phone device itself – likely dependent on the person who has called.
    2. Concede: Take the form and outer appearance of the product as a status symbol, moving more into the personal sphere of the consumer. All kinds of accessories like leather bags and casings, headsets and even diamond-like decorations are extolled, expressing more individuality. The mobile phone has long become a personal belonging like pieces of jewelry or purses, slowly taking the place of adults' wallets and keys, or even the place of a cuddle toy to a child. The step toward becoming a personalized product thus is small.
    3. Co-opt: An extensive analysis would consider transferring findings into all other possible categories of application. Personal basic commodity and clothing can be further investigated here.
    4. Conceive: In a world where mobility counts, the next step is probably to send moods and feelings along with speech and pictures – more than simply sending emoticons. The personalization goes further when seeing the cell phone moving physically closer to the customer with wearable mobiles that challenge the textile and mobile industry alike. The mobile integrates into personal outfits by making it more tactile at the sender's and receiver's side, e.g., by an arm sling or a vest. Such a tactile-sensitive mobile could send emotions by multimedia messaging service, resulting in a slight squeeze of the receiver's arm.
    5. Chart: Consider diversion attractiveness with the following equation:
      a = u + (u – s)
      where a = diversion attractiveness, u = usefulness and s = satisfaction
      Within this equation, usefulness and customer satisfaction are rated by numbers from one to ten. A high rating of usefulness refers to a highly considered contribution to a customer. Customer satisfaction can be highly rated when alternative products are available and/or affordable. The result of the equation can never be less than zero and highlights a relative attractiveness of unorthodox use as it considers only the difference between usefulness and satisfaction.
      • Originality and practical orientation also should be considered. At the moment, the main problem remains with the design of conductive fibers and fabrics, and in applying sensor properties to threads and textiles. Power generation, supply and signal processing in/with clothes is a vast but recognized field at the moment, with strong potential for the communications industry.
    6. Choose: How much sense does it makes for a mobile communication company to enter the textile industry and vice versa? Denying this question is not an option. When a new application, say a pressure sensitive arm sling, is selected, the company has to go into the subject more deeply, by addressing questions like context awareness of such personalized wearable phones – or who wants to be remotely embraced in the middle of an inconvenient situation?

    Tracing the Unorthodox Use of Effervescent Tablets

    Another product example is normal dental cleansing tablets for false teeth. Assume that the unorthodox use of the product at the customer's side is not familiar to the developing company. In this case, the company should start to trace back such information or start with step 2, concede.

    Seeing the product as a bundle of effects, they would include frothing up, bubbling, de-calcifying, sterilizing, enlarging volume, smelling, coloring liquids, and so on. (Refrain from mentally connecting these effects to the intended functions they have in the original application.) Next, a company could consider using the effects of de-calcification and sterilizing, and attempt to apply them to the fields of science, medical or household equipment. Can the tablets be adapted to the problem of the hardening of human arteries (probably this is not new a knowledge, but serves here for demonstration purposes). The same question can be asked when transferring the product effects to normal household problems, such as lime scale in bathrooms or dirt in drinking-bottles.

    The diversion attractiveness equation can analyze the alternative products with the estimated usefulness. Say, the satisfaction with such alternative household products against lime scale is very low due to high price and/or interference with health requirements. Then, the term in brackets could therefore reach a high score, and adding to the estimated high usefulness of such a product, the diversion attractiveness sums up to a high score. List the scores to all possible product application ideas and "choose" the most appropriate one to then develop a new product concept based on a context variation.

    TRIZ for Non-intended Product Use

    Using the systematic approach to innovation known as TRIZ (Theory of Innovative Problem Solving) can assist with the discovery and utilization of non-intended product use and the 6-C method:


    The innovation process ends with the creation of items customers want to achieve. It begins with tracing and identifying new situations in which they will have to solve problems. With the underestimation, if not neglect, of unorthodox use, developing companies are provided with a new TRIZ-like tool to imagine customer-desired product outcomes instead of customer-input-driven problem solutions to formerly expressed needs. The 6-C method traces unorthodox use and leads to new, sometimes wild ideas for product innovation, breaking with the original purpose assigned to a product and revealing new purposes based on functions and effects.


    The author extends her sincere thanks to Dr. C. Petersen who, by her unorthodox initiative, contributed to finding an appropriate English term for the German word "zweckentfremdung."


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    This paper was presented at ETRIA TRIZ Futures 2007.

    About the Author:

    Claudia Hentschel studied industrial engineering, focusing mechanical engineering and production technology, at TU Berlin and at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Her professional background features five years of research, teaching and industry consulting at the Department of Assembly Technology of the TU Berlin/Fraunhofer Gesellschaft within the Production Technology Center Berlin. In 1996, Dr. Hentschel changed to Siemens AG Information and Communication Mobile (ICM), working as a product manager in projects aimed at the turn-key installation of mobile communication networks and managing the supply of OEM products for the radio subsystem of mobile GSM networks. Since 2000 she has been a professor at the University of Applied Sciences FHTW Berlin, lecturing on innovation, technology management and project management. Contact Claudia Hentschel at c.hentschel (at)

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