Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) in Design and Engineering

Product development is a journey which starts with an idea and ends when the finished product rolls off the production line. It’s never straight forward. Sometimes you need to revisit prototypes or old ideas to move forward. But how can we tell how far along this journey we have come, and how far we still have to go? At 4c, we use Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). Originally developed by NASA to assess the technology readiness of spacecraft design in the 1970s, TRLs are incredibly useful tools for assessing and communicating progress along the product development journey.

Click to download TRL PDF

Earlier this week, we hand delivered a prototype batch to a client for them to trial in their manufacturing facility. By using the shared language of TRLs we were easily able to explain to our client that we expected the prototypes to achieve TRL6 ‘testing in the intended environment’. However, further work would be needed to take the product through the final TRLs to reach TRL9 – Full Commercial Production.

We are currently using TRLs to plan and track the development of key elements of Numnuts – a humane lamb tail docking and castration tool (due 2019). Find out more here.

(Photo from trials in 2016 – the design has moved along a lot since as we gear up for TRL7 later this year with all 3 key components)

The beauty is the clarity of the descriptors. That’s why TRLs work. The need to achieve clear criteria in order to reach the next level. Although we apologise for altering them slightly to suit typical New Product Development (NPD) as we’re yet to work on a space exploration project.

The Journey

To us, NPD has an incredible journey. When we think about it at 4c, it is often a messier than the Double Diamond used by the Design Council. It’s closer to the Design Squiggle by Damien Newman. Yes we’ve interpreted it differently as clarity (a straight line) isn’t found until later on, but marry it up with the TRLs and you’ll begin to understand why going through so many ideas early on is important. Often exit criteria are hard to meet in the early levels and sometimes an idea or concept, once prototyped, doesn’t work and you find yourself revisiting levels to get a commercial product.

Either way, if you start working with us, expect to see these diagrams again.