What are Technology Readiness Levels? (TRLs)

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By now, you’ve probably seen the acronym TRL used in many articles, especially within the world of deep tech. TRL stands for ‘Technology Readiness Level’, and it is a widely used measurement system designed to make an educated evaluation of the maturity level of a particular technology (TWI). This is especially vital during the acquisition phase of a technology, allowing engineers to have a consistent datum of reference for understanding technological evolution, regardless of their technical background. 

The Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) chart
The Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs)

NASA originally developed TRLs in the 1970s for space exploration technologies, and over time, many organisations have implemented TRLs for their own purposes, to the point of normalising the original NASA readiness-level definitions and ultimately allowing for easier translation to multiple industry sectors – not just space exploration (TWI). As a result, TRLs have become the standard for evaluating the maturity of new technologies, which explains its wide breadth of applicability within many different industries.

How does it work?

To begin, each technology project has to be evaluated against the parameters for each technology level, before being assigned a TRL rating based on the progress of the project. In total, there are nine technology readiness levels, with TRL 1 being the lowest, and TRL 9 being the highest (TWI):

As you can see below, the system is split into three tiers: Levels 1 – 3 = Research, Levels 4 – 6 = Development, and Levels 7 – 9 = Deployment. When a technology is at TRL 1, scientific research is beginning and those results are being translated into potential future research and development (NASA). TRL 2 occurs once the basic principles have been identified and studied, and when practical applications can be applied to those initial findings in order to shape a conceptual vision of a final functioning application (NASA). This stage tends to be very speculative, and whilst concepts are envisioned, there is little to no experimental proof of concept for the technology (NASA).

Once active research and design start to take place, technology is elevated to TRL 3 – this is usually where a proof-of-concept is modelled and constructed (NASA). At this stage, both analytical and laboratory studies are required to determine whether a technology is truly viable and worthy of further procession through the phase of development (NASA).

Once the proof-of-concept technology has been deemed ready, the technology then advances to TRL 4, where multiple component pieces are tested with one another (NASA). TRL 5 is the natural continuation of TRL 4; however, a technology that is at 5 is identified as a breadboard technology. Breadboard technology is a term used to describe a construction base for prototyping electronics that can be repeatedly used for experimentation and temporary prototypes. This means that a TRL 5 technology can undergo more rigorous testing than technology that is only at TRL 4, and at this level, simulations can be run in environments that are as close to reality as possible (NASA). 

Once testing at TRL 5 is complete, a technology may advance to TRL 6 – this is where a fully functional prototype or a representational model has been created that can stand the stages of simulative stress testing (NASA). In TRL 6, the technology has to be demonstrated to be effective in the relevant environment, which requires the prototype system to be verified. Whilst success at this stage poses a promise for a technology, the leap between TRL 6 and TRL 7 is arguably one of the most significant within the entire system (TWI). 

At TRL 7, the system model or prototype must be demonstrated in an operational environment, which as we have mentioned, is a major step increase in technological maturity, as an operational environment poses more external variables (TWI). Examples here could include a prototype model or system being verified in a fully operational environment in which the concept would be envisioned to be functioning (TWI).

Once TRL 7 is complete, the technology advances to TRL 8, which is where the system is considered to be complete and qualified (TWI). At this stage, the knowledge and data generated from TRL 7 are used to manufacture an actual system/model, which is subsequently qualified in an operational environment – in most cases, this TRL represents the end of the development phase (TWI).
Finally, we have the end stage, which is TRL 9. Here, the actual system/model which finished development in TRL 8 is proven and ready for full commercial deployment; in other words, the actual model/system is being successfully deployed for multiple applications and use cases by end users (TWI).

Why is it important?

TRL Levels are an essential tool for DeepTech startups to measure how developed the technology they are commercialising is and the steps needed to prepare for the market. Any technology development team needs to understand how they can efficiently validate what they are building, so that future customers can trust that it works.

At Cambridge Future Tech, we work with technologies across the spectrum, supporting innovative ventures to reach TRL 9 and market readiness.

If you’re developing an exciting technology, find out how Cambridge Future Tech can help you by getting in touch with our team.

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