Arguably, one of the biggest pitfalls in technology, research, and development is excess optimism. But, you can’t exactly fault scientists for being overly confident of their work, science takes a lot of effort and time. Notwithstanding, the real world runs on functional products, not sentiments. Products have to be able to do what they are projected to do and they have to be safe and practical.
Recognizing the need for this, NASA developed the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) in the 1970s. It was developed for their space program, where equipment failures could result in very catastrophic losses. The Technology Readiness Levels estimate the maturity of technology through their conceptualization, development, and application stages, on a scale of one to nine. One being the lowest and nine, the highest.
The TRLs have gone on to be adopted worldwide, first by European Space Agency and then by independent research and development concerns. Although still somewhat limited, the TRL scale has begun to find use outside the space industry.
So, what are the nine levels of technology readiness?
TRL 1 – Basic principles observed and reported
TRL 2 – Technology concept and/or application formulated
TRL 3 – Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-of-concept
TRL 4 – Component and/or breadboard validation in a laboratory environment
TRL 5 – Component and/or breadboard validation in a relevant environment
TRL 6 – System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment
TRL 7 – System prototype demonstration in an operational environment
TRL 8 – Actual system completed and qualified through test and demonstration
TRL 9 – Actual system proven through successful mission operations
Technology Readiness Level 1:
Basic principles observed and reported
This is the lowest level of technology readiness. It is at this point that basic research begins to graduate into applied research and development. Everything here is largely paper-based, scientific research outlining the basic principles on which the technology will be built.
Technology Readiness Level 2:
Technology concept and/or application formulated
It is at this level that the research begins to be translated into experimental practical applications.
These are usually just speculative, however, as there aren’t usually much detailed data to support them. They are usually just analytical studies. The difference between this level and TRL 1 is the presence of physical analytical applications unlike TRL 1 which is purely paper-based.
Technology Readiness Level 3:
Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-of-concept.
This is the stage where active research and development fully begins. Laboratory analyses are held to evaluate the accuracy of initial theories and analytical studies of separate pieces of the technology. In order words, at this level, individual components of the system are tested to determine whether they can perform tasks predicted by scientific research when they are eventually put together.
Technology Readiness Level 4:
Component and/or breadboard validation in a laboratory environment
When TRL 3 is passed and it is established that the individual components work as they should, basic components are then put together to see how well they work together. This is the technology readiness level 4. However, this level of testing is still very preliminary and laboratory-based. The expected result of this stage is a comparison between the actual abilities of the components and their projected abilities. If the actual abilities are satisfactory, development can continue.
Technology Readiness Level 5:
Component and/or breadboard validation in a relevant environment
At this stage, the components are tested in a simulated environment. After the preliminary tests in TRL 4 confirm that they work as they should, other supportive elements are then added after which they are then tested again, this time, in a simulated environment. Again, the goal here is to test how much their actual abilities measure up to the projected abilities. The results here determine whether development can continue.
Technology Readiness Level 6:
System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment
At this stage, a much more advanced prototype is tested in a relevant environment. Since confidence has been sufficiently established in the components, they are then put together to be tested, either in a high-fidelity laboratory environment or in a simulated operational environment. Here, development is nearly complete. While it may not be feasible to jettison the entire project at this stage, it helps to quickly detect and correct errors before the project goes further.
Technology Readiness Level 7:
System prototype demonstration in an operational environment
At this point, the prototype is nearly operational. The prototype is then tested in an actual operational environment. For example, if the technology being developed was a new navigation system for airplanes, it would be installed in a plane and tested. The goal here is to ascertain whether the prototype has the capabilities that were projected for it and meets operational requirements and whether it raises any new problems in the operation of the airplane.
Technology Readiness Level 8:
Actual system completed and qualified through test and demonstration
Already in TRL 7, the technology has been shown to work as expected. So, this level usually signifies the end of the development process. The technology is then tested in-field demonstrations. If it was a guidance system in an airplane, the airplane would finally be tested, and the guidance system demonstrated. And if it was a weapons system, it would be test-fired, which is probably the most popular TRL 8 example in the world. This level detects any problems that might be overlooked before the product is finally introduced to the market.
Technology Readiness Level 9:
Actual system proven through successful mission operations
This is the final technology readiness level. The system is finally applied in operational conditions. For airplanes, that would mean adding the plane to operational fleets. And for weapons, it would mean using them in active combat. Usually, there aren’t any more serious problems at this stage, as they would have been discovered at earlier levels.
Levels one, two, three, and four are called the concept stage and are often undertaken by academic researchers, with government or corporate funding. Levels seven through nine are the testing and application stage and are usually carried out by the private sector. Levels five and six do not get as much support as the other levels and have been tagged the “valley of death”, a grim description pointing out how easily and often new, promising technologies get neglected and killed at this stage.
As pieces of technology progress through the Technology Readiness Levels, their maturity increases, and utility becomes more likely, while risk reduces. This is why, while it might not be necessary to go through all of the levels, adequate risk evaluation must be carried out before any level is skipped.
TRLs are application-specific. If you are going to apply a piece of technology for uses other than it was intended for, it is important to take it through the model again. Overall, it is a fantastic method for managing development. Using it, problems can be quickly identified and unviable projects can be quickly dumped. So, for better decision-making and ultimately, more profits, starting using the TRL model as soon as possible.