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How Play-Doh Created its New Compound, Play-Doh Plus

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When it was first developed in the 1950s, Play-Doh wasn’t a kids’ toy: It was made to clean wallpaper that had been dirtied by soot from home heating systems. But as cleaner heating systems were developed, the makers of that wallpaper cleaner realized it had another purpose—a toy that kids could mold things out of.  In 1956, they began marketing the stuff, now called Play-Doh, to schools, and kids have been turning it into faux-cheeseburgers and smashing it into carpets in over 90 countries ever since.

This year, the classic Play-Doh compound in its yellow container got a new purple partner: Play-Doh Plus. “Through the years we’ve made some evolutions of the traditional Play-Doh compound to make it a little bit softer and to make the colors brighter,” says Gregory Lombardo, Senior Global Marketing Director for Play-Doh and other brands at Hasbro. “But this is really the first compound with a whole new formula we’ve created that was intended to be used with traditional Play-Doh.”

Play-Doh Plus began when the company was looking for a way to make the treats kids create in its Sweet Shoppe playsets look more realistic. “We were basically looking at, ‘Hey, if we made a cake out of the regular Play-Doh, could we make a softer, lighter, fluffier compound that would be more like the icing and the frosting that you would put on it?’” Lombardo says.

So Play-Doh’s in-house chemistry department set out to do just that. Rather than start from scratch, the chemists took the regular compound—“because there is a particular expertise in the production of it,” Lombardo says—and began to make tweaks to its formula (which is a carefully guarded secret). As the chemistry department rolled out small batches of tweaked compound, they were then sent to the design department, which would play with the substance and assess things like its consistency and stickiness. That feedback would go to the chemists, who continued to play with the new compound. “It was really a back and forth between our chemistry department and our design department to make sure that [the compound was] getting the type of performance it needed without the side effects we didn't want,” Lombardo says.

Developing the new compound took around 18 months. “The chemistry is very fickle,” Lombardo says. “The slightest change can have a drastic effect on the performance of the compound.” And then there was the challenge of producing the bigger batches, which also requires tweaking the formula. “It’s just like when you’re cooking for two versus cooking for a party of 50,” he says. “The taste is a little bit different when you’re making a small batch versus if you’re making a big batch, so there’s tweaks to the formula that are made when we get into production as well.” But despite the tweaked formula and process, the company uses the same machines in Play-Doh Plus’ production line. 

Play-Doh Plus launched with the company’s Sweet Treats line, but is now available in multiple other lines as well. As for the name? Lombardo says the company chose Play-Doh Plus because “it allows you to ‘plus up’ your creations and do things that you’ve never been able to do before. It’s enhanced the overall Play-Doh experience and adds a whole extra layer of creativity.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.