Is it time to rethink the nearly twenty-eight-year-old technology readiness level (TRL) framework? The TRL is by far the most popular evaluation framework for corporate technology scouts, but although it can easily be applied to a wide range of opportunities, the generality of the system ignores some of the key concerns in actual product development.
A Better Way?
The TRL(prod) model was developed by researchers at the University of Bath and the Lulea University of Technology. This methodology expands the classic TRL framework to better fit the needs of product development. TRL(prod) includes more complex but necessary variables such as technology lifecycle, multi-technology products, and the importance of individual technologies to overall product success.
There are no silver bullets in technical innovation, and this framework is by no means a perfect solution, but for those tech scouts who are more interested in near-term product development, this methodology provides a tidy yet comprehensive equation for measuring the true value of a new technology opportunity. Let’s try and walk through the differences between the two methodologies.
First, a summary of classic TRL:
Most of you are familiar with the classic TRL scale, so I will keep this short. As the graphic demonstrates, the classic methodology involves nine stages of evaluation and ranking, from basic research to proven deployment. This model is concise, informative, and easy to communicate. The classic TRL is a great scale for broad technology evaluation and ranking.
What Is the TRL Lacking?
The TRL is great when evaluating a single, highly independent technology, but it is limited when one emerging technology is dependent on another. This problem is especially common when physical products (for example, robotic innovations) require equally complex software to run them.
Furthermore, critical technologies, or those advances that are absolutely essential to the end product, are not weighted in the classic TRL model. This means that each individual technology in the end product is given the same value when in reality some new technologies are more important than others.
When examining new innovations, scientists need to consider which pieces are 100 percent essential to the success of the eventual product and which can be substituted. For example, consider a new pharmaceutical treatment that relies on both the active molecule (critical) technology and a new delivery method (noncritical/replaceable) technology. The readiness level of this new drug would be poorly reflected in the classic TRL scale.
To overcome these challenges, organizations should begin to think first about the criticality of new technologies. The table below comes from the same paper and was inspired by Mankins’s “Technology Need Values.” The table essentially provides a framework for weighing individual technologies and includes a bias toward highly critical core technologies.
|3||Technology enables the core functionality of the product (i.e., the active molecule in our drug example).|
|2||The technology provides a critical role in the product function, but some suitable workaround may exist.|
|1||The technology enhances the performance, efficiency, etc. Several alternative technologies exist.|
Next, we need to address the problem of multiple technologies combining to form one new product or innovation. To do so, we can use the equation listed below, again taken from the paper, and apply the weighted criticality number:
For an extremely simplified example, let’s consider a new product we want to develop, a microprocessor. Our example microprocessor will be built using an innovative new material. To create the final product, we absolutely need that advanced new material, but we also need a reliable way to manipulate it for the manufacturing process and a new method to quality-test this material for potential flaws.
First, What is the TRL Ranking?
The core material has been in “Proof of Concept Phase” and has been demonstrated to be effective in a lab environment. The manipulation technology we have selected is in the “Beta Prototype” stage and has been demonstrated to be effective in an operational environment. Finally, the testing process we proposed is only a concept and has yet to be applied in live experiments.
Next, Apply the Scores
In terms of critically, the core material is completely novel and no real alternative exists. This material s the main technology we want to develop, and because there are no possible substitutions, it receives a criticality score of 3. The manipulation process we have chosen is vital to the success of our project. However, there is one other manipulation technique we could potentially use, so the criticality score for this technology is 2. Finally, the testing method will help enhance the final product and ensure it is market-ready. Alternate testing methods are available that may be slightly less ideal but still acceptable. The testing technology would score a criticality of 1.
|Technology||TRL Score||Criticality Score|
The overall readiness level of the combined technologies will look like this:
Obviously, this example is nowhere near as complicated as a real-world product development project is. However, the example does demonstrate the value of the model for combining multiple technologies, weighing their importance, and communicating the overall readiness level.
This ranking method provides a more specific and more useful measurement of actual product readiness, allowing teams to better gauge the maturity of their innovation projects. For more information on the technology scouting process, check out the Wellspring blog.
Hicks, Ben James, Steve Culley, Andreas Larsson, and Tobias Larsson,. "A Methodology for Evaluating Technology Readiness during Product Development." Design Organization and Management(n.d.): 157-68. Web.