Originated by NASA in 1970s, Technology Readiness Level (TRL) is a 1-to-9 measurement scale used to describe the maturity of new technologies under development. It helps monitor and adapt their progress route towards larger system integration and/or market launch. This enables a better execution in terms of project performance, schedule and budget. The scale is appreciated for its ability to improve risk management, resource allocation, and project coordination. Therefore, TRLs and TRL-inspired readiness scales are increasingly utilized by engineers, scientists, innovators, investors, granters, purchasers, international organizations, and governments in many countries.
TRLs show how close you are to shipping your product. They let you track your project in a spectrum between an idea on a scratch paper and a usable product in the industry. Also, if you are an individual without any interest in commercialization, you can generally refer to TRLs to underline your research focus, for instance, TRL 1-3 might mean you are a theoretician dealing with abstract concepts.
On the other hand, TRLs are not intended to order or compare technologies based on their complexity, likeability, or innovativeness. So, higher TRLs do not necessarily indicate more advanced or impactful technologies. Though you can customize or extend your TRL metrics to cover these and other dimensions of your choice as in this example. TRLs can also be used for non-technological innovations as foreseen by Horizon 2020, the current EU research and innovation framework program. Below left is Annex G of its 2016-17 Work Program, which is the official reference within Horizon 2020. Below right is a slide from an EC presentation, which helps understand the definitions. (You can click and view their bigger versions in a new tab/window.)
A tool for disciplined innovation
Just as all the other business methodologies and models, TRL framework requires a certain mindset and it works under certain conditions and limitations. First of all, you should be replying ‘yes’ to below questions to simply confirm that exercising TRLs is right for your innovation project:
- Are you dealing with new technology, product, or service research and development?
- Does your development involve major risks, unknowns, probabilities, and dilemmas?
Having passed this, it is worth to check how your work culture resonates with those of the organizations who are able to benefit from TRL practice the most. Aligned with design thinking, lean startup, agile development, and open innovation, their empowering beliefs and principles can be summarized as follows:
- To embrace systematic entrepreneurship, evidence-based decision-making, and scientific approach to business development.
- To believe that innovation cannot be planned or executed at once and entirely in advance so a development process, either technological or non-technological, should be phased.
- To organize interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams. To integrate research, development, and commercialization efforts rather than isolating them in sequential steps.
- To design basic scientific research with the potential end product ideas in mind and vice versa.
- To extend development concerns from discrete product features to overall value offering and to business model.
If above mentality does not sound meaningful to you, TRLs may turn into just an empty formality and a burden distracting you with its paperwork. Below is an excerpt from Steve Blank’s speech at the Lean Startup Conference in 2013. He summarizes TRLs and introduces his Investment Readiness Levels (IRLs).
6 steps to TRL assessment
Technology readiness assessment has two major concerns: TRL measurement and technology maturation planning. The former focuses on accurate determination of TRLs whereas the latter concentrates on how to advance the project from one TRL to the next. This can be best achieved if the assessment starts as early as possible and be iteratively performed throughout the project. Being discipline- and industry-independent, TRL framework does not strictly reinforce certain scientific methodologies, experiments, statistical analysis, or commercialization planning. Organizations are both free and responsible to design their novel research, development, and launch program. As a roadmap, the framework helps understand, design, and follow this process. Below is a summary of the methodology. A few key definitions will be followed by the necessary action steps.
Critical Technology Element (CTE) is a component that is vital to the system to meet operational requirements, cost, and schedule AND is novel or, at least, new indicating a major risk during design or demonstration.
Relevant environment simulates the technologically stressing aspects of the operational environment.
Operational environment addresses all the operational requirements and specifications required of the final system to include platform/packaging.
1. Set your project objective What is your target TRL 9 technology? Which customer segments or what tech specifications should it satisfy?
2. Customize the TRL definitions What are the CTEs and characteristics of the relevant and operational environments (i.e., physical, data, ecosystem, and user experience)?
3. Specify success criteria for TRLs What performance levels should be achieved on which metrics in relation to CTEs? What are the major issues (i.e., constraints, interoperability)?
4. Describe the roles Who will participate in assessment at each TRL (i.e., developer, marketer, technology expert, independent reviewer)?
5. Schedule and execute the measurement What evidence (i.e., data, variables) should be studied and how (i.e., experiment, simulation, pilot test, desk research)?
6. Report and advise Is a TRL exited? What further development work is needed to achieve higher TRLs? What difficulties and risks are predicted with regard to this progress?
Apparently, there is no one-size-fits-all assessment process. You can craft your unique assessment procedure in collaboration with your stakeholders. Here are some reference documents where you can find inspiration: NASA TRL definitions, ISO standard for TRLs, Guidelines for the use of TRLs in ESA programmes. It is common that organizations who utilize TRLs frequently and preciously develop TRL calculators in Excel spreadsheets to easily measure, record, and monitor their TRL progress.
10 Frequently Asked Questions on assessment
Innovators especially those utilizing TRLs for the first time experience some confusion on how to best benefit from TRL scale. Here are 10 tips to avoid from misunderstandings.
Is there any authoritative body that measures, approves, or certifies TRLs?
No, there is not an official certification or approval process for TRLs. You are responsible to plan and execute your own assessment. Though there are some official guidelines or recommendations offered by certain institutions that may help maintain more robust and persuasive TRL framework. If you have commitments to these institutions through a procurement or grant project, you are already required to follow them thoroughly.
What if the relevant parties cannot agree on the TRL of our technology?
You’d better first agree on your TRL criteria, evidence, and measurement procedure. This would be a life-saver if the technology is complex, project duration is long, and there are many participants involved. In general, TRL 1-5 measurement is leaded by technology experts. After TRL 5, customer perspective is the determining factor to assign a TRL.
My technology passed TRL 5 and is now being tested against TRL 6. Can I call it TRL 6?
No. In order to report TRL 6, you should be conclusively done with TRL 6 activities. By the way, your development work can start at TRL 5, which means you are not the originator of all the technologies and concepts enabling your innovation. However, your TRL measurement still needs to start from TRL 1 to simply confirm that your organization has successfully analyzed and incorporated the necessary base knowledge and technologies in the project.
Do I have to complete a particular TRL work within a certain period of time?
No. This is not a linear process where the necessary work and achievement criteria are the same for all TRLs. It may take several years to pass a level and just days to pass another.
Can I measure and claim a TRL on paper or should I actually do a demo?
The higher TRL, the more real-life demonstration. TRL progress can start with basic research and scientific experimentation that may heavily rely on desk research, simulation, or lab work. As TRLs are passed through, more ‘outside the building’ activity should be incorporated ending up with a well-functioning product or service in the market.
What TRL should I report if my project relies on several technologies at different TRLs?
In general, you should report a single TRL for the outcome of your entire project rather than separate TRLs for each sub-component since they are not aimed to function discretely. As a rule of thumb, when there are many sub-components involved in a project, project TRL is the lowest of all. However, if you have a multi-purpose project with several genuinely different outcomes with their unique evolution path, you may declare more than one TRL.
My innovation aims to integrate several known mature technologies. Can I skip early TRL validations and directly start from, for instance, TRL 6 activities?
No. Even if you do not foresee any integration or interoperability issues theoretically, you should still verify your assumptions and hypothesis. Though this could be fast and easy since certain discoveries are already made. Remember that TRL assessment indicates your original IP. If you find there is nothing critical to validate or demonstrate, this may mean that your innovation does not have an added-value.
My research successfully ended up at TRL 6 several years ago. Now, assuming its previous TRL still valid, can I start where I left earlier?
No. Many parameters may have changed over time, particularly, market demand, state-of-the-art, industrial standards, and legal regulations. Basically, you need to confirm that what brought you success in the past will still make sense in the future.
My TRL 7 technology was supposed to be included in a specific larger technology system. What about its TRL, if I try to adapt it into another technology system?
If those two larger systems are genuinely distinct with their own characteristics, you should follow through relevant readiness assessment for the new target technology system, too. One should remember that a technology is unlikely to have an intrinsic value of its own in today’s marketplace where products function together and rely on one another to deliver their intended value. For example, despite being based on the same core TRL 1-4 technology, two different use cases of the final technology may require different TRL 5-9 paths.
If TRL 6 requires a working technology, what is the difference between TRL 6 and 9?
TRL 6 requires a prototype (or the kind of proof-of-concept commonly practiced in your field) showing that your offering is able to address a customer challenge. However, TRL 9 means that you put a product on the shelf for sale with all the right packaging, pricing, user manual, distribution network, complementary services, and technical support.