The importance of determining your product's technology readiness level explained. Learn how TRLs facilitate the new product development process.
The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) is a system for measuring the maturity of a product, dividing the product creation process into 9 distinct stages, providing a systematic approach to project development.
As we previously mentioned in our article titled “How to develop Deep-tech, Hardware or IOT technology into a product”, it was NASA who first introduced the TRL scale to assess the readiness of spacecraft and technologies. Startups can now employ a modified version of this scale to organize their efforts when creating future products.
The TRL scale for new product development consists of 9 levels, with each level signifying a step-by-step increase in value during the product's development.
In this article, we will explore the value that a transition to each TRL brings to the development of a future product.
At EnCata, we classify the 9 TRL levels into 3 stages: concept, development, and implementation.
Concept. TRLs 1-4
At the outset of a new product's development, there is the concept stage. It involves analysis and hypothesis formation. To reduce costs for testing your ideas, high-tech hardware startups often undergo this stage in collaboration with universities or research laboratories. From TRL 1 to TRL 3, you undergo the stages of theory and planning. However, to get feedback from users and attract potential investors, you need to create something tangible -- a prototype or a model. In the world of hardware products, one working prototype will speak louder than a bunch of reports, business plans, presentations, and numerous marketing campaigns. Therefore, a logical completion of the concept stage would be the creation of the first prototype, TRL 4, which can already be examined, touched, and presented to demonstrate the technology's functionality. We do not recommend concluding the concept stage with mockups, looks-like prototypes, or animations. For this role, a proof-of-concept prototype is suitable, which demonstrates key functionality and allows testing of the main technical risks.
TRL 1 - Basic Research
If you are developing your own unique technology, then you should make sure that the basic research has been carried out and your technology “works on paper”, there are no contradictions and blind spots in it.
To do this, you must make logic circuits, conduct scientific experiments, perform calculations, set technical limitations and formulate your expectations from the use of technology in a future product. In our experience, the team that develops a new product needs to conduct additional market analysis. At TRL 1, you need to find answers to the following:
- What are your goals?
- What problem will your product solve?
- Who are your potential customers?
- What do your potential customers need?
Having found the answers to these questions, your idea turns from a simple “What if?” to “Why is it worth creating this product?". The answer to “Why?” will become a reliable basis for success, which can already be discussed with partners or investors.
The value of this stage includes:
- Theoretical confirmation of the technology, technical limitations, evaluation of the target characteristics of the future product;
- Information about your target audience, needs and market size.
This information will allow you to make a decision about the technical feasibility and estimate the value risks of your technology and product in the first approximation, comparing your idea with existing alternatives on the market.
TRL 2 - Concept
In the initial TRL 1 phase, you've set clear objectives and addressed crucial questions to kickstart the development process. Now, it's essential to gain a comprehensive understanding of your prospective product and assess its market demand.
As you progress to TRL 2, you'll seek answers to a series of pivotal questions:
- What approaches can address the problem at hand? How will the future product function? What implementation options are available?
- Which external scientific knowledge and core technologies will serve as your foundation? Are they adequately explored, and do you possess sufficient expertise in these domains?
- Additionally, you'll investigate existing market alternatives and gauge the market size.
This will entail analyzing market materials, exploring potential production methods, and delving into foreseeable risks that might emerge during the product development process. Through this analysis, you'll be able to fine-tune the product's characteristics and devise a strategy for its development.
The value of this stage includes:
- The concept of your product in the form of text descriptions and sketches;
- Potential technical risks;
- Competitive advantages over existing market alternatives.
Armed with this information, you can form hypotheses regarding the future product's usability and associated risks.
TRL 3 - Concept Validation
TRL 3 marks the crucial stage of putting your idea to the test. Building upon the data gathered in TRL 1 and TRL 2, you must now develop a comprehensive vision of your concept and craft the initial demo of your product to attract potential investors.
During this phase, you commence testing your hypotheses concerning the value, usability, feasibility, and business viability of your product. For high-tech ventures, this stage can involve thorough R&D efforts, while projects based on proven technologies may be summarized with diagrams and calculations in tables.
Engaging industrial designers at this point helps visualize the product, and their work aids engineers in creating 3D prototypes.
To progress beyond TRL 3, you should answer YES to the following questions and support the answer with proper research findings:
- Does your product address the pain points and needs of potential customers?
- Will the target consumers be able to use your product effectively?
- Can your engineers implement the concept successfully?
- Is your product cost-effective?
The value of this stage includes:
- User scenarios;
- Roadmap for product development;
- User-expectation-based product requirements;
- Preliminary design ideas that resonate with users and distinguish you from competitors;
- Initial cost estimate for the new product.
With this valuable information in hand, you can present your new product to your team, potential partners, and investors, allowing them to assess whether investing time and resources in bringing your idea to life is justified.
TRL 4 - Proof-of-concept
TRL 4 is the final phase of the concept stage.
Now, it's time to transform your idea into a tangible form - by creating a Proof of Concept (POC) for your product. When creating a prototype, you don't need to implement all the functions envisioned for the final product; instead, demonstrating a key function or validating a fundamental hypothesis crucial to your product's success is sufficient. To achieve this, you can leverage cost-effective materials, rapid prototyping technologies, simplified firmware versions, and third-party software.
For instance, let's say your goal is to develop a door lock with real-time remote monitoring capabilities from anywhere in the country. At TRL 4, your focus would be on showing that sending a command from your phone to open/close the lock will indeed be followed by the lock's mechanism. To accomplish this, you need not create an entire lock casing or design a custom printed circuit board. Instead, you can procure a locking mechanism from any electronic lock, assemble the control electronics on a breadboard, write basic code to transmit signals to the lock, and test the mechanism's functionality. Based on test results, you refine any errors and showcase whether your device is operable. At this stage, it's vital to add a distinguishing function or feature that sets your product apart from competitors and captivates potential users. For instance, in the case of a smart lock, you might offer multiple communication options, allowing buyers to choose between Wi-Fi, NB-IoT, or LoRa WAN. Thus, at TRL 4, the prototype of your smart lock should fulfill its primary function – remote opening and closing - while also highlighting the competitive advantage it offers.
The value of this stage: you receive a POC of the product, which allows you to visually evaluate the key characteristics of your product and prove to your investors that your idea really works.
Development. TRLs 5-8
To ensure a swift and successful product launch, assembling a proficient team is crucial. Additionally, you'll need to synchronize this team's efforts with funding rounds, intermediate testing, and engagement with end users. You have the option to either hire qualified personnel or collaborate with an outsourcing company.
However, bear in mind that the testing should not be limited to an isolated technology; instead, it should involve interactions with external devices and systems.
TRL 5 - Validation in a Relevant Environment
At TRL 4, you developed the initial prototype of your future device with certain constraints and demonstrated the viability of your idea, potentially attracting potential investors. The subsequent stage involves refining and enhancing individual nodes of your future product to test the entire system's functionality under conditions closely resembling real-world scenarios. Your product must possess all the features that will be tested under controlled conditions and with specific limitations. Although your TRL-5 prototype should be prepared for testing, successful completion of these tests is not mandatory at this stage. The TRL-5 prototype should, however, be capable of executing the required user scenarios.
During this stage, you'll develop and test individual nodes or subsystems of the product, considering their interactions with other parts.
For example, if electronics are integral to your product, at TRL 5, you can verify the performance of power conversion nodes, power supplies, and data transmission processes. In the mechanical part, you'll assess mechanical gears, latches, fasteners and other connections, and work out rotary mechanisms.
To illustrate, in the "Educational Robot-Assistant" project, we dedicated effort to a prototype of a 4-stick gripping mechanism (referred to as the robot's hand). The device was a metal frame in which the hand did not function, because the robot's control electronics were not worked out and gave out minimal functionality to demonstrate the robot to investors. Moreover, it did not perform all the tasks necessary for the end user.
At TRL 5, we advanced the 4-finger hand grip, equipping it with all the necessary systems for testing. Our electronics engineers designed a custom PCBA hub to control actuators and servos, while the Raspberry Pi served as the control board, managing the entire robot and providing wireless communication. We manufactured the hand and developed a test firmware to evaluate the hand's operation.
As a result, we received a well-developed capture mechanism, electronics for controlling the robot and a test firmware for it.
The value of this stage: upon completion of this level, you receive working mechanisms/parts of your product that will be tested at the TRL-6 stage and combined into a single system.
TRL 6 - Finalized prototype
At the TRL 5 stage, you've thoroughly inspected and refined the functional mechanisms and components of your product. Now, it's time to integrate them into a TRL 6 prototype to showcase the system's operation under conditions closely resembling real-world scenarios.
To illustrate, let's examine the case of "Educational Robot-Assistant". During the TRL 5 phase, we developed and prepared for testing a 4-finger grip, a custom hub, and a control board for the robot. Our next step was to assemble our developments into a single prototype, ensuring that the system complied with all technical requirements and functioned flawlessly under controlled conditions.
After installing all the nodes and assembling the prototype, we tested how the nodes work together. This involved testing how the control board received signals and whether any errors occurred in the robot's execution of commands from a person. We also examined the performance of rotary mechanisms during movement.
Once the prototype is fully assembled, it becomes ready for demonstration at exhibitions and specialized forums, promotional videos, and fundraising efforts to further develop the product. At TRL 6, you have the opportunity to fine-tune the technical requirements based on customer feedback and make necessary adjustments that may have been overlooked previously. Keep in mind that it's vital to prioritize addressing the pain points of your potential customers over your own preferences.
The value of this stage: upon completion of TRL 6, you receive the first functional version of the product which enables you to initiate alpha testing with your target audience.
TRL 7 - Functional prototype
At TRL 7, you refine your product based on the test results gathered during TRL 6 and the valuable feedback received from users. Advancing to this level implies that the tests were conducted under real-world conditions. For instance, if you're developing a warehouse robot, it should be capable of navigating through an actual warehouse, dealing with dusty floors and boxes scattered by the previous shift. At this stage, you receive the first product ready for use and sale.
In the case of “Educational Robot-Assistant”, we made adjustments to the robot's metal structure after discovering design elements that impeded the movement of its parts during testing. To save on firmware adjustments, we utilized 3D printing to produce parts of the robot's enclosure. As a result, we achieved a fully functioning prototype, ready for presentation to potential customers.
The value of this stage: upon completion of TRL 7, you obtain a fully operational prototype, serving as the foundation for beta testing with your target audience. This crucial step allows you to gather valuable feedback from customers, uncover the product's strengths, and lay the groundwork for organizing an effective marketing campaign.
TRL 8 - Small-scale production
TRL 8 is the final stage in your product's development journey. At this point, all the paperwork commences, involving the preparation of design and technological documentation, while making minor adjustments to the prototype to align it with mass production requirements. Also, this stage involves conducting numerous tests to assess reliability, performance, and safety of use. At TRL 8, it becomes crucial to obtain the necessary certifications and ensure compliance with the country's legislation where you intend to sell your product.
Meanwhile, the collaboration with outsourcing engineering companies ends, and the search for a contractor to initiate mass production commences.
For instance, let's take the "Air purification device" project as an example. Upon completing TRL 7, during which we produced three prototypes with enclosures made from different materials, namely powder-coated sheet metal, wood, and plastic, the customer sought out a contractor in China.
Based on the models we provided, molds were designed for casting, resulting in the production of 50 sets of enclosures.
The customer's feedback allowed us to make necessary adjustments to improve the manufacturability of the enclosures.
The value of this stage: upon completing TRL 8, you receive a small series of prototypes, enabling you to spot any imperfections in the production process and refine the technological aspects of product manufacturing. Essentially, this stage marks the completion of your product's development, paving the way to bring it to the market.
Implementation. TRL 9
Implementation marks the final stage in bringing your product to life. During this phase, the production goes into full swing. Marketers and sellers actively participate in the process, initiating advertising campaigns.
TRL 9 - Mass production
TRL 9 represents the ultimate stage in product creation, where the primary focus shifts from the product itself to its successful sales. To achieve this, it is essential to execute a well-planned marketing campaign and establish mass production for your product.
There are several options for mass production of the product:
- Setting up your own factory;
- Becoming a production specialist;
- Hiring a professional;
- Reaching out to production consultants.
The choice among these options depends on your preferences and budget.
In the case of the "Air purification device" project, after completing TRL 8, which involved producing a batch of 50 devices, the startup successfully launched crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. With the additional investments garnered through crowdfunding, it initiated mass production in China, without the aid of EnCata.
The value of this stage: upon completion, you gain an established production process capable of manufacturing large batches of your product, enabling you to concentrate fully on advertising and successful implementation in the market.
- TRL shows how far your development is from market launch. Each TRL level establishes criteria that enable us to progressively develop and test a product idea through prototypes and eventually move towards production.
- TRL levels are dynamic, implying that we cannot simply settle for the achieved results without considering the constantly changing world around us.
- The readiness level during the concept stage depends on market demands and innovation trends, whereas development stage readiness is affected by shifts in user behavior, the introduction of new products, and changes in legislation.
- It is crucial to strive for speed and agility during the development process. Abandoning development at TRL 4 and returning to it after 5 years would necessitate starting from scratch, as what was achieved in the TRL 1-3 stages is likely to be outdated by then. New materials and alternatives may emerge, and market needs can change significantly over time.
- To create a successful product, it is essential to maintain continuous progress, with a well-thought-out road map guiding the journey and ensuring important project milestones are not delayed. The TRL methodology provides the framework to thoughtfully plan the trajectory, securing constant forward momentum towards the goal, while also preventing any haphazard or chaotic development approach.