In technology-driven projects where “immature” technology is selected for integration into larger systems, there is very real risk of project cost overruns and schedule delays. The ability to make good decisions about whether or not to include new technology and concepts in larger systems can be vital to the success of cost- and time-sensitive projects.
Unfortunately these key decisions must often be made in the absence of essential information. Many approaches, and a range of decision-support tools, have been developed to help overcome this challenge. The aim of all of them is, despite a limited amount of information, to arrive at accurate and timely assessments of technology readiness. Such an assessment about the maturity of a technology and its readiness for integration into advanced technology systems, is essential if project managers are to make better, less costly decisions. One widely accepted approach for such assessment is Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs).
First developed at NASA in the 1980s and 1990s and now internationally recognized, TRLs are a set of management guidelines that enable the team to assess the maturity of a particular technology. TRLs divide technology maturity into nine recognizable levels from initial concept (TRL 1) to validation in real application (TRL 9). SEE CHART. These stages can be easily described in a chart. They allow consistent comparison of maturity between different types of technology—all in the context of a specific system, application, and operational environment. With these, project management can develop a foundation for developing and communicating insight into the risks involved in advancing a new system and its new technology components. Technology that may be mature in one application may only be TRL 4 in another application.
Adopted in 2006 by the US Department of Defence (DoD), TRLs are now a standard means of technology assessment not only by DoD and NASA, but also by NATO and the European Space Agency. Among the countries where it has been adapted at the national level are Canada, the UK, and Japan. And the European Space Agency now has a TRL Handbook available on line. (Click here to download the ESA Handbook.)
Whether or not this approach to technology development and its sudden international prominence is a sign of the times or a lasting shift in technology development remains to be seen. An international ISO working group began in 2010 to develop an agreement for a set of international TRL standards. (NOTE: Canada’s representative on the committee is Lt.Cdr. Brent Hobson, Defense Research and Development, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Email firstname.lastname@example.org).
In more prosperous times, such as for NASA in the days of the Apollo Program, the emphasis was on applying the “test-fail-fix process,” or on developing multiple parallel approaches looking for the best one. Some would argue that the test-fail-fix process has a proven track record. It is, however, a process that most cannot afford to follow today. And those innovators and technology companies prepared to work within the parameter of the TRLs may well find themselves on a winning track.