Technology Readiness Levels: A guide to getting it right in your organisation
We live in a world where different technologies are advancing at varying rates. The most famous example of these growth rates is Moore’s Law, which describes how the number of transistors that can fit onto a circuit board roughly doubles every two years.
Other technologies follow similar exponential curves (like storage space, fiber optic capacity, pixels per dollar to name a few). However, subtle differences in growth rates can manifest in huge differences in small amounts of time.
Here’s a simple example:
- Technology A grows 5% each year
- Technology B grows 10% each year
Tech A after 50 years: 1.05⁵⁰ = 11.5
Tech B after 50 years: 1.1⁵⁰ = 117.3
The difference in another 50 years? A = 131.5 vs B = 13780.6
For every year that passes, the differences become more and more substantial.
Technology Growth Rates
A number of different technologies are growing at exponential rates. Others have growth rates that are nowhere near as steep.
It’s important to know how developed certain technologies are in relation to others in order to know what sorts of innovations are possible given the capabilities we have today.
A good example of this in the real world is electric cars. Electric cars have existed for over a century, but only in recent years has battery technology progressed to a sufficient degree to make electric cars a viable alternative to their gas guzzling counterparts. Now, the Tesla Model 3, an electric car for the masses, is breaking all sorts of records. We’re set to see an electric car revolution.
But how do you know when a technology is ready for implementation?
Technology readiness levels (TRLs) are an example of a structured, step-by-step means of estimating and testing the maturity level of a particular technology.
TRLs were originally developed by NASA in 1974 to assess the technology readiness of the JPL Jupiter Orbiter spacecraft design. They are now used by various organisations in many industries to determine how ready a technology is for deployment, including oil and gas, medtech and manufacturing, among others.
What are Technology Readiness Levels?
TRLs vary depending on the organisation using them, though they are quite simple in principle. They breakdown readiness into a number of categories. (These vary depending on the industry, but the core concepts are the same).
TRLs can be broken down into 7 categories:
- Basic Principles Observed and Reported
- Potential Application Validated
- Proof-of-Concept Demonstrated
- Component Laboratory Validated
- Component Validated in Simulated Environment
- System Adequacy Validated in Simulated Environment
- System Adequacy Validated in Intended Environment
The number of TRLs vary depending on the institution employing them, though the seven listed above cover the necessary principles.
Basic Principles Observed and Reported
This is the lowest level of technology readiness. Scientific research begins to be translated into research and development where the potential for technology implementation is identified and explored.
Potential Application Validated
At this level, the research and development on the particular technology has demonstrated its validity. This is where invention begins to take place, trying to bring scientific concepts into the real world.
Proof of Concept Demonstrated
Once the potential of technology has been validated, a proof of concept is designed and is tested.
Once the proof of concept has shown promise, the component is developed and is tested in a laboratory (or equivalent) environment.
Component Validated in a Simulated Environment
The next step is to test the component itself in a simulated environment.
System Adequacy Validated in Simulated Environment
At this stage, the component is integrated with the system in which it’s designed to operate. The effectiveness of the system itself is then tested in a simulated environment.
System Adequacy Validated in Intended Environment
At this final step, the system is tested in the environment in which it is intended to operate.
If the system with the new technology is successful, congratulations! You’ve completed the TRL hierarchy.
While you may not be working on sending people to Mars or developing the next generation of smartphone, taking a methodical approach to determining the readiness of a technology still has a vast amount of merit. TRLs give you a step-by-step approach to researching and testing potential transformative technologies. When a critic enquires about the validity of a technology, TRLs give you something to point to justify an implementation decision. Data is your friend.