BRADFORD L. GOLDENSE | Contributing Technical Expert
New tools, techniques, processes, and metrics
are invented and tried out all the time. Some
get great press out of the box because of the
person or organization they are connected
to. We hear about some of them and then a few years later we
wonder where they went. Some have more quiet beginnings
and disappear before we ever hear of them. About 99% follow
this course within seven years. One can find them in internet
searches, but that doesn’t tell you if they are being used.
There are a few methodologies that rise from the myriads
and stand the test of time. We all know about them Robert
Cooper’s Stage-Gate, Donald Clausing’s Concurrent Engi-
neering, John Hauser’s QFD, Genrich Altshuller’s TRIZ, and
3M’s Vitality Index for new products. Well, we should add
another to the list: Technology Readiness Levels . It has finally
made the club.
Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs): FTRLs have fast
tracked their way around the world across many industries in
a mere 17 years. TRIZ was a bit slower due to cultural barriers,
but TRL’s adoption speed rivals those of other club members.
Another kid on the block is Return on Innovation, which
is also known as “ROInnovation.” It originated from several
sources in the mid-2000s. It hasn’t quite made the club yet, but
it’s close. ROInnovation is an evolution of several ideas and a
consistent approach to it has yet to settle-out in industry. This
is quite the contrary for TRLs. Developed by the U.S. Depart-
ment of Defense in the years surrounding the millennium, this
fairly precise and logical technique was published as policy in
the draft 2002 Defense Acquisition Guidebook.
TRLs got great press because a number of companies had
to use them to report progress and needed to achieve various
TRL levels to receive payment. So TRLs hit the ground run-
ning. NASA and other agencies loved them. The test of TRLs
would be if they moved outside that sphere.
Many global defense companies, GE, Rolls-Royce, United
Technologies, Boeing, and others have a good chunk of their
business outside that sphere. Quickly after the technique was
adopted it spread to the commercial side of the business. It was
subsequently applied to company supply chains, and so rolled
out. In the course of my travels, I caught wind of it at Tata in
India, Bombardier in Canada, Embraer in Brazil, and the pres-
tigious ITRI in Taiwan—all within a few years.
More recent travels came across it being used as a technol-
ogy-rating instrument by the European Commission, and as
a tool used by some European VC funds to determine invest-
ment portfolio appropriateness and/or the resultant level and
duration of funding. These latest uses made it a member of
Manufacturing Readiness Levels: TRLs come with an
added benefit—they have associated “MRLs” that work with
TRLs to monitor both product and process readiness. Most
organizations that use TRLs also use MRLs at some level. Suc-
cess breeds propagation.
In the years thereafter, Interface Readiness Levels (IRLs),
System Readiness Levels (SRLs), and People Readiness Levels
(PRLs) were created. Thankfully propagation stopped, but
it had the benefit of fully underpinning the technique. Like
QFD’s focus on nailing customer requirements at the start of
the method, which remains a business priority 30 years later,
we come to use the best part of the XRL family—the initial
TRLs and MRLs.
The TRL Ecosystem: TRLs follow a logical, progressive
10-step process. At step 10, you sip the champagne. Informa-
tion on the details of TRLs is plentiful, with articles and images
abounding from every major continent. Most TRL descriptions
do not adequately address intellectual property, a touchy subject
with governments. Be sure to give your TRL and MRL levels a
good look, and then plan your offensive and defensive intellec-
tual property strategies accordingly. This is important regard-
less of whether you are a big company or a small maker looking
for funding. In the latter case, the DARPA Hard Test for Innova-
tion may also be of interest (a subject for another day).
BRADFORD L. GOLDENSE is founder and president of Goldense
Group, Inc. (GGI; www.goldensegroupinc.com), a consulting,
market research, and education firm focused on business and
technology management strategies and practices for product
creation, development, and commercialization.
96 MAY 2017 MACHINE DESIGN