Life-cycle assessment (LCA, also known as life-cycle analysis, and cradle-to-grave analysis) is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life-cycle of a commercial product, process, or service, e.g., in the case of a manufactured product, from raw material extraction and processing (cradle), through the product's manufacture, distribution and use, to the recycling or final disposal of the materials composing it (grave).
More specifically, the term is applied to the techniques and methods by which the overall enviromental impact of the product, process, or service is determined, through a thorough inventory of the energy and materials that are brought into each, and the energy and materials related to each that are released into the environment. Hence, as stated by the EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, life-cycle assessment examines commercial or similar products, processes, and services, providing a technique to assess their "environmental aspects and potential impacts"; it does so with a view toward allowing informed decisions, through an evaluation of the "potential environmental impacts" assigned to the inventory of all inputs and releases (for a given product, process, or service) of materials and energy into the environment.
Widely recognized procedures for conducting LCAs are included in the 14000 series of environmental management standards of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), in particular, in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044.
Criticisms have been leveled against the LCA approach, both in general and with regard to specific cases, e.g., in recognising the dependence of the requisite LCA inventory on available methods and data (both of which can vary in consistency/quality), and the susceptibility of particular LCAs to practitioner bias with regard to the decisions that practitioner LCAs are seeking to inform.
Definition, synonyms, goals, and purpose
Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is sometimes referred to synonymously as life-cycle analysis in the scholarly and agency report literatures. It is also sometimes referred to as "cradle-to-grave analysis".
As stated by the National Risk Management Research Laboratory of the EPA, "LCA is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by:
- Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases
- Evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases
- Interpreting the results to help you make a more informed decision".
Hence, it is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling. Designers use this process to help critique their products.
The goal of LCA is to compare the full range of environmental effects assignable to products and services by quantifying all inputs and outputs of material flows and assessing how these material flows affect the environment. This information is used to improve processes, support policy and provide a sound basis for informed decisions.
The term life-cycle refers to the notion that a fair, holistic assessment requires the assessment of raw-material production, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal including all intervening transportation steps necessary or caused by the product's existence.
There are two main types of LCA. Attributional LCAs seek to attribute the burdens associated with the production and use of a product, or with a specific service or process, at a point in time, typically in the recent past. Consequential LCAs seek to identify the environmental consequences of a decision or a proposed change in a system under study, and thus are oriented to the future. requiring that market and economic implications must be taken into account. A third type of LCA, termed "social LCA", is also under development This third type is a distinct approach to that is intended to assess potential social implications and impacts.
Some widely recognized procedures for LCA are included in the ISO 14000 series of environmental management standards, in particular, ISO 14040 and 14044. Greenhouse gas (GHG) product life cycle assessments can also comply with specifications such as Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2050 and the GHG Protocol Life Cycle Accounting and Reporting Standard.
Main ISO phases of LCA
According to standards in the ISO 14040 and 14044, an LCA is carried out in four distinct phases, as illustrated in the figure shown at the above right (at opening of the article). The phases are often interdependent, in that the results of one phase will inform how other phases are completed.
Goal and scope
An LCA starts with an explicit statement of the goal and scope of the study, which sets out the context of the study and explains how and to whom the results are to be communicated. This is a key step and the ISO standards require that the goal and scope of an LCA be clearly defined and consistent with the intended application. The goal and scope document, therefore, includes technical details that guide subsequent work:
- the functional unit, which defines precisely what is being studied, quantifies the service delivered by the system, provides a reference to which the inputs and outputs can be related, and provides a basis for comparing/analysing alternative goods or services.
- the system boundaries, which delimit which processes should be included in the analysis of a system.
- any assumptions and limitations;
- the allocation methods, which are used to partition an environmental load of a process when several products or functions share the same process. Allocation is commonly dealt with in one of three ways: system expansion, substitution, and partition, and it is a difficult process where different methods may give different results; and
- the impact categories, which might include such categories as human toxicity, smog, global warming, eutrophication.
Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) analysis involves creating an inventory of flows from and to nature for a product system. Inventory flows include inputs of water, energy, and raw materials, and releases to air, land, and water. To develop the inventory, a flow model of the technical system is constructed using data on inputs and outputs. The flow model is typically illustrated with a flow chart that includes the activities that are going to be assessed in the relevant supply chain and gives a clear picture of the technical system boundaries. The input and output data needed for the construction of the model are collected for all activities within the system boundary, including from the supply chain (referred to as inputs from the technosphere).
The data must be related to the functional unit defined in the goal and scope definition. Data can be presented in tables and some interpretations can be made already at this stage. The results of the inventory is an LCI which provides information about all inputs and outputs in the form of elementary flow to and from the environment from all the unit processes involved in the study.
Inventory flows can number in the hundreds depending on the system boundary. For product LCAs at either the generic (i.e., representative industry averages) or brand-specific level, that data is typically collected through survey questionnaires. At an industry level, care has to be taken to ensure that questionnaires are completed by a representative sample of producers, leaning toward neither the best nor the worst, and fully representing any regional differences due to energy use, material sourcing or other factors. The questionnaires cover the full range of inputs and outputs, typically aiming to account for 99% of the mass of a product, 99% of the energy used in its production and any environmentally sensitive flows, even if they fall within the 1% level of inputs.
One area where data access is likely to be difficult is flows from the technosphere. The technosphere is more simply defined as the human-made world. Considered by geologists as secondary resources, these resources are in theory 100% recyclable; however, in a practical sense, the primary goal is salvage. For an LCI, these technosphere products (supply chain products) are those that have been produced by human and unfortunately those completing a questionnaire about a process which uses a human-made product as a means to an end will be unable to specify how much of a given input they use. Typically, they will not have access to data concerning inputs and outputs for previous production processes of the product. The entity undertaking the LCA must then turn to secondary sources if it does not already have that data from its own previous studies. National databases or data sets that come with LCA-practitioner tools, or that can be readily accessed, are the usual sources for that information. Care must then be taken to ensure that the secondary data source properly reflects regional or national conditions.
LCI methods include "process LCAs",, economic input–output LCA (EIOLCA), and hybrid approaches.
Inventory analysis is followed by a life-cyle impact assessment (LCIA). This phase of LCA is aimed at evaluating the significance of potential environmental impacts based on the life-cycle impact flow results. Classical LCIAs consist of the following mandatory elements:
- selection of impact categories, category indicators, and characterization models;
- the classification stage, where the inventory parameters are sorted and assigned to specific impact categories; and
- impact measurement, where the categorized LCI flows are characterized, using one of many possible LCIA methodologies, into common equivalence units that are then summed to provide an overall impact category total.
In many LCAs, characterization concludes the LCIA analysis, it is the last compulsory stage according to ISO 14044. However, in addition to the above mandatory LCIA steps, other optional LCIA elements–normalization, grouping, and weighting–may be conducted depending on the goal and scope of the LCA study. In normalization, the results of the impact categories from the study are usually compared with the total impacts in the region of interest, e.g., the United States. Grouping consists of sorting and possibly ranking the impact categories. During weighting, the different environmental impacts are weighted relative to each other so that they can then be summed to get a single number for the total environmental impact. ISO 14044 generally advises against weighting, stating that "weighting, shall not be used in LCA studies intended to be used in comparative assertions intended to be disclosed to the public". This advice is often ignored, resulting in comparisons that can reflect a high degree of subjectivity as a result of weighting.
Life cycle impacts can also be categorized under the several phases of the development, production, use, and disposal of a product. Broadly speaking, these impacts can be divided into first impacts, use impacts, and end of life impacts. First impacts include extraction of raw materials, manufacturing (conversion of raw materials into a product), transportation of the product to a market or site, construction/installation, and the beginning of the use or occupancy. Use impacts include physical impacts of operating the product or facility (such as energy, water, etc.), and any maintenance, renovation, or repairs that are required to continue to use the product or facility. End of life impacts include demolition and processing of waste or recyclable materials.
Life-cycle interpretation is a systematic technique to identify, quantify, check, and evaluate information from the results of the life cycle inventory and/or the life cycle impact assessment. The results from the inventory analysis and impact assessment are summarized during the interpretation phase. The outcome of the interpretation phase is a set of conclusions and recommendations for the study. According to ISO 14040, the interpretation should include:
- identification of significant issues based on the results of the LCI and LCIA phases of an LCA;
- evaluation of the study considering completeness, sensitivity and consistency checks; and
- conclusions, limitations and recommendations.
A key purpose of performing life cycle interpretation is to determine the level of confidence in the final results and communicate them in a fair, complete, and accurate manner. Interpreting the results of an LCA is not as simple as "3 is better than 2, therefore Alternative A is the best choice". Interpretation begins with understanding the accuracy of the results, and ensuring they meet the goal of the study. This is accomplished by identifying the data elements that contribute significantly to each impact category, evaluating the sensitivity of these significant data elements, assessing the completeness and consistency of the study, and drawing conclusions and recommendations based on a clear understanding of how the LCA was conducted and the results were developed.
Specifically, as voiced by M.A. Curran, the goal of the LCA interpretation phase is to identify the alternative that has the least cradle-to-grave environmental negative impact on land, sea, and air resources.
At the time of a survey of LCA practitioners in 2006, LCA was being used to support business strategy and R&D (18% each, of total applications surveyed); other uses included LCA as an input to product or process design (15%), its use in education (13%), and its use for labeling or product declarations (11%).
It has been suggested that LCA will be continuously integrated into building practices through the development and implementation of appropriate tools—e.g., the European ENSLIC Building project guidelines—that guide practitioners in applying LCI data methods to planning, design, and construction.
Major corporations all over the world are either undertaking LCA in house or commissioning studies, while governments support the development of national databases to support LCA. Of particular note is the growing use of LCA for ISO Type III labels called Environmental Product Declarations, defined as "quantified environmental data for a product with pre-set categories of parameters based on the ISO 14040 series of standards, but not excluding additional environmental information". Third-party certification plays a major role in today's industry, and third-party certified LCA-based labels provide an increasingly important basis for assessing the relative environmental merits of competing products. In particular, such independent certification is described as indicating a company's dedication to providing clients with safe and environmentally friendly products.
A life cycle analysis is only as accurate and valid as is its basis set of data. There are two fundamental types of LCA data–unit process data, and environmental input-output (EIO) data. Unit process data are derived from direct surveys of companies or plants producing the product of interest, carried out at a unit process level defined by the system boundaries for the study. EIO data are based on national economic input-output data.
Data validity is an ongoing concern for life cycle analyses. If LCA conclusions are to be valid, data used in the LCA inventory must accurate and valid, and so, with regard to validity, recent. Moreover, when comparing a pair of LCAs for different products, processes, or services, it is crucial that data of equivalent quality are available for the pair being compared. If one of the pair, e.g., a product, has a much higher availability of accurate and valid data, it cannot be justly compared to another product which has lower availability of such data.
With regard to the timeliness of data, it has been noted that data validity can be at odds with the time that data-gathering takes. Due to globalization and the pace of research and development, new materials and manufacturing methods are continually being introduced to the market, making it both important and difficult to identify and apply up-to-date information. For instance, in the consumer electronics sector, products such as cell phones may be redesigned as often as every 9 to 12 months, creating a need for rapid, ongoing data collection.
As noted above, the inventory in the LCA usually considers a number of stages including: materials extraction, processing and manufacturing, product use, and product disposal. If the most environmentally harmful of these stages can be determined, then impact on the environment can be efficiently reduced by focusing on making changes for that particular phase. For example, the most energy-intensive stage in the LCA of an aircraft or automobile product is during its use, as a result of fuel consumption during the product lifetime. An effective ways to increase fuel efficiency is to decrease vehicle weight; hence, aircraft and automobile manufacturers can decrease environmental impact through replacement of heavier materials with lighter ones (e.g., aluminium or carbon fiber-reinforced elements), all specifications and other costs being equal.
Data sources used in LCAs are typically large databases. It is not appropriate to compare two options if different data sources have been used to source the data. Common data sources include:
Calculations for impact can then be done by hand, but it is more usual to streamline the process by using software. This can range from a simple spreadsheet, where the user enters the data manually to a fully automated program, where the user is not aware of the source data.
Cradle-to-grave is the full Life Cycle Assessment from resource extraction ('cradle') to use phase and disposal phase ('grave'). For example, trees produce paper, which can be recycled into low-energy production cellulose (fiberised paper) insulation, then used as an energy-saving device in the ceiling of a home for 40 years, saving 2,000 times the fossil-fuel energy used in its production. After 40 years the cellulose fibers are replaced and the old fibers are disposed of, possibly incinerated. All inputs and outputs are considered for all the phases of the life cycle.
Cradle-to-gate is an assessment of a partial product life cycle from resource extraction (cradle) to the factory gate (i.e., before it is transported to the consumer). The use phase and disposal phase of the product are omitted in this case. Cradle-to-gate assessments are sometimes the basis for environmental product declarations (EPD) termed business-to-business EPDs. One of the significant uses of the cradle-to-gate approach compiles the life cycle inventory (LCI) using cradle-to-gate. This allows the LCA to collect all of the impacts leading up to resources being purchased by the facility. They can then add the steps involved in their transport to plant and manufacture process to more easily produce their own cradle-to-gate values for their products.
Cradle-to-cradle or closed loop production
Cradle-to-cradle is a specific kind of cradle-to-grave assessment, where the end-of-life disposal step for the product is a recycling process. It is a method used to minimize the environmental impact of products by employing sustainable production, operation, and disposal practices and aims to incorporate social responsibility into product development. From the recycling process originate new, identical products (e.g., asphalt pavement from discarded asphalt pavement, glass bottles from collected glass bottles), or different products (e.g., glass wool insulation from collected glass bottles).
Allocation of burden for products in open loop production systems presents considerable challenges for LCA. Various methods, such as the avoided burden approach have been proposed to deal with the issues involved.
Gate-to-gate is a partial LCA looking at only one value-added process in the entire production chain. Gate-to-gate modules may also later be linked in their appropriate production chain to form a complete cradle-to-gate evaluation.
Well-to-wheel is the specific LCA used for transport fuels and vehicles. The analysis is often broken down into stages entitled "well-to-station", or "well-to-tank", and "station-to-wheel" or "tank-to-wheel", or "plug-to-wheel". The first stage, which incorporates the feedstock or fuel production and processing and fuel delivery or energy transmission, and is called the "upstream" stage, while the stage that deals with vehicle operation itself is sometimes called the "downstream" stage. The well-to-wheel analysis is commonly used to assess total energy consumption, or the energy conversion efficiency and emissions impact of marine vessels, aircraft and motor vehicles, including their carbon footprint, and the fuels used in each of these transport modes. WtW analysis is useful for reflecting the different efficiencies and emissions of energy technologies and fuels at both the upstream and downstream stages, giving a more complete picture of real emissions.
The well-to-wheel variant has a significant input on a model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory. The Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model was developed to evaluate the impacts of new fuels and vehicle technologies. The model evaluates the impacts of fuel use using a well-to-wheel evaluation while a traditional cradle-to-grave approach is used to determine the impacts from the vehicle itself. The model reports energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and six additional pollutants: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matter with size smaller than 10 micrometre (PM10), particulate matter with size smaller than 2.5 micrometre (PM2.5), and sulfur oxides (SOx).
Quantitative values of greenhouse gas emissions calculated with the WTW or with the LCA method can differ, since the LCA is considering more emission sources. In example, while assessing the GHG emissions of a battery electric vehicle in comparison with a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle, the WTW (accounting only the GHG for manufacturing the fuels) finds out that an electric vehicle can save the 50-60% of GHG, while an hybrid LCA-WTW method, considering also the GHG due to the manufacturing and the end of life of the battery gives GHG emission savings 10-13% lower, compared to the WTW.
Economic input–output life cycle assessment
Economic input–output LCA (EIOLCA) involves use of aggregate sector-level data on how much environmental impact can be attributed to each sector of the economy and how much each sector purchases from other sectors. Such analysis can account for long chains (for example, building an automobile requires energy, but producing energy requires vehicles, and building those vehicles requires energy, etc.), which somewhat alleviates the scoping problem of process LCA; however, EIOLCA relies on sector-level averages that may or may not be representative of the specific subset of the sector relevant to a particular product and therefore is not suitable for evaluating the environmental impacts of products. Additionally the translation of economic quantities into environmental impacts is not validated.
Ecologically based LCA
While a conventional LCA uses many of the same approaches and strategies as an Eco-LCA, the latter considers a much broader range of ecological impacts. It was designed to provide a guide to wise management of human activities by understanding the direct and indirect impacts on ecological resources and surrounding ecosystems. Developed by Ohio State University Center for resilience, Eco-LCA is a methodology that quantitatively takes into account regulating and supporting services during the life cycle of economic goods and products. In this approach services are categorized in four main groups: supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural services.
Exergy of a system is the maximum useful work possible during a process that brings the system into equilibrium with a heat reservoir. Wall clearly states the relation between exergy analysis and resource accounting. This intuition confirmed by DeWulf and Sciubba lead to Exergo-economic accounting and to methods specifically dedicated to LCA such as Exergetic material input per unit of service (EMIPS). The concept of material input per unit of service (MIPS) is quantified in terms of the second law of thermodynamics, allowing the calculation of both resource input and service output in exergy terms. This exergetic material input per unit of service (EMIPS) has been elaborated for transport technology. The service not only takes into account the total mass to be transported and the total distance, but also the mass per single transport and the delivery time.
Life cycle energy analysis
Life cycle energy analysis (LCEA) is an approach in which all energy inputs to a product are accounted for, not only direct energy inputs during manufacture, but also all energy inputs needed to produce components, materials and services needed for the manufacturing process. An earlier term for the approach was energy analysis. With LCEA, the total life cycle energy input is established.
It is recognized that much energy is lost in the production of energy commodities themselves, such as nuclear energy, photovoltaic electricity or high-quality petroleum products. Net energy content is the energy content of the product minus energy input used during extraction and conversion, directly or indirectly. A controversial early result of LCEA claimed that manufacturing solar cells requires more energy than can be recovered in using the solar cell . The result was refuted. Another new concept that flows from life cycle assessments is energy cannibalism. Energy cannibalism refers to an effect where rapid growth of an entire energy-intensive industry creates a need for energy that uses (or cannibalizes) the energy of existing power plants. Thus during rapid growth the industry as a whole produces no energy because new energy is used to fuel the embodied energy of future power plants. Work has been undertaken in the UK to determine the life cycle energy (alongside full LCA) impacts of a number of renewable technologies.
If materials are incinerated during the disposal process, the energy released during burning can be harnessed and used for electricity production. This provides a low-impact energy source, especially when compared with coal and natural gas While incineration produces more greenhouse gas emissions than landfills, the waste plants are well-fitted with filters to minimize this negative impact. A recent study comparing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from landfills (without energy recovery) against incineration (with energy recovery) found incineration to be superior in all cases except for when landfill gas is recovered for electricity production.
Energy efficiency is arguably only one consideration in deciding which alternative process to employ, and should not be elevated as the only criterion for determining environmental acceptability. For example, a simple energy analysis does not take into account the renewability of energy flows or the toxicity of waste products. Incorporating "dynamic LCAs", e.g., with regard to renewable energy technologies—which use sensitivity analyses to project future improvements in renewable systems and their share of the power grid—may help mitigate this criticism.
In recent years, the literature on life cycle assessment of energy technology has begun to reflect the interactions between the current electrical grid and future energy technology. Some papers have focused on energy life cycle, while others have focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. The essential critique given by these sources is that when considering energy technology, the growing nature of the power grid must be taken into consideration. If this is not done, a given class energy technology may emit more CO2 over its lifetime than it initially thought it would mitigate, with this most well documented in wind energy's case.
A problem that energy analysis method cannot resolve is that different energy forms—heat, electricity, chemical energy etc.—have different quality and value as a consequence of the two main laws of thermodynamics. According to the first law of thermodynamics, all energy inputs should be accounted with equal weight, whereas by the second law, diverse energy forms should be accounted for using different values. The conflict may be resolved in one of several ways: the value differences between the energy inputs might be ignored, a value ratio may be arbitrarily assigned (e.g., that an input joule of electricity is 2.6-times more valuable than a joule of heat or fuel), the analysis may be supplemented by economic/cost analysis, or exergy, a thermodynamic measure of the quality of energy, may be used as the metric for the LCA (instead of energy).
Life cycle assessment is a powerful tool for analyzing commensurable aspects of quantifiable systems. Not every factor, however, can be reduced to a number and inserted into a model. Rigid system boundaries make accounting for changes in the system difficult. This is sometimes referred to as the boundary critique to systems thinking. The accuracy and availability of data can also contribute to inaccuracy. For instance, data from generic processes may be based on averages, unrepresentative sampling, or outdated results. Additionally, social implications of products are generally lacking in LCAs. Comparative life-cycle analysis is often used to determine a better process or product to use. However, because of aspects like differing system boundaries, different statistical information, different product uses, etc., these studies can easily be swayed in favor of one product or process over another in one study and the opposite in another study based on varying parameters and different available data. There are guidelines to help reduce such conflicts in results but the method still provides a lot of room for the researcher to decide what is important, how the product is typically manufactured, and how it is typically used.
An in-depth review of 13 LCA studies of wood and paper products found a lack of consistency in the methods and assumptions used to track carbon during the product lifecycle. A wide variety of methods and assumptions were used, leading to different and potentially contrary conclusions – particularly with regard to carbon sequestration and methane generation in landfills and with carbon accounting during forest growth and product use.
- Ilgin, Mehmet Ali & Surendra M. Gupta (2010). "Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing and Product Recovery (ECMPRO): A Review of the State of the Art". Journal of Environmental Management. 91 (3): 563–591. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2009.09.037. PMID 19853369.
Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a method used to evaluate the environmental impact of a product through its life cycle encompassing extraction and processing of the raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, use, recycling, and final disposal.. See also this list of references to the term.
- EPA NRMRL Staff (6 March 2012). "Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)". EPA.gov. Washington, DC. EPA National Risk Management Research Laboratory (NRMRL). Archived from the original on 6 March 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
LCA is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by: / * Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases/ * Evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases / * Interpreting the results to help you make a more informed decision
- Jonker, Gerald; Harmsen, Jan (2012). "Chapter 4—Creating Design Solutions (§ Goal Definition and Scoping)". Engineering for Sustainability. Amsterdam, NL: Elsevier. pp. 61–81, esp. 70. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-53846-8.00004-4. ISBN 9780444538468. Retrieved 8 December 2019.
It is very important to first set the goal of the life cycle analysis or assessment. In the conceptual design stage, the goal in general will be identifying the major environmental impacts of the reference process and showing how the new design reduces these impacts
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- Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products Archived 18 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine, United Nations Environment Programme, 2009.
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- E.g., see Saling, Peter and ISO Technical Committee 207/SC 5 (2006). ISO 14044: Environmental management—Life cycle assessment, Requirements and guidelines (Report). Geneve, CH: International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Retrieved 11 December 2019.
- ISO 14044 replaced earlier versions of ISO 14041 to ISO 14043.
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- If a product and its component production processes are not significantly changed since the last date of LCA data collection, data validity is no more of a current issue that for the previous LCA.
- Reduction of impact occurring during the use phase must then be more than enough to balance other impacts, e.g., from additional raw materials or increased manufacturing cost.
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