Measuring the progress of a technology
The progress of every RCNDE project is reviewed regularly in terms of its Technological and Commercial Readiness Levels (TRL and CRL). At the project proposal stage, this evaluation system allows the starting point and anticipated end point of a project proposal to be communicated in such a way that the expectations of all the involved parties can be defined closely and thereby minimise the risk of disappointment in a project outcome. It is also used to measure progress when a project is being undertaken, and describes the future steps that will be needed to make the technology more useful to the end user.
When a project or technology reaches a level where it is becoming more mature and likely to be implementable by industry, RCNDE holds a “Technology Readiness Workshop”, attended by the developers and potential end users, where all the Technical and Commercial aspects are reviewed closely. This process highlights any developmental shortfalls and identifies possible paths towards full implementation.
TRL and CRL
Technology Readiness Levels
RCNDE adopted the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) system for gauging the progress of its Core and Targeted research projects over ten years ago. This system was originally developed by NASA in 1974 and has since been introduced into many industrial sectors as a means of specifying the technological status, or the starting and finishing points, of a development project in a consistent way. It has become a valuable means for communicating to funders, developers and end users, so that the expectations for a project can be understood clearly by all parties.
The RCNDE TRL system is shown diagrammatically in Figure 1. Essentially there are nine levels ranging from TRL 1, the initial idea, to TRL 9, the system in use having completed all aspects of validation, manufacture, training and documentation etc. Within each level there are more detailed descriptions of the criteria that must be satisfied at that level. In general, the core projects undertaken by RCNDE lie within the band TRL 1 to 3, and progress to TRL 4, 5 and 6 is usually achieved through Targeted projects and the engagement of EngD students working with Industry. Full commercialisation can be achieved through a range of avenues, for example by further industrial funding, the formation of a spin-out company, collaboration with an Associate Member in the supply chain, or engagement with a Catapult.
The overall process is conventionally divided into four project phases: Phase 1 covering TRL 1 to 4 is the initial Research and Development; Phase 2 from TRL 5 to 6 is for the development of a prototype system; Phase 3 from TRL 7 to 8 the first commercialised field system, and; Phase 4 at TRL 9 is the launch.
Figure 1: Definitions of the Technology Readiness Levels and
Project Phases adopted by RCNDE
Commercial Readiness Levels
The Commercial Readiness Level (CRL) system in use by RCNDE is expressed in a similar way to the TRL system. There are again nine distinct levels as shown in Figure 2, and each level contains several criteria that must be satisfied. The system is modelled on the criteria that are used by the US Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The levels proceed in a similar way to the TRLs: the lower CRLs explore whether there is a market for the development and possible applications; the middle levels provide more concrete data on the costs needed to take a product to market, including such things as protection of IP, the identification of suppliers, partners and customers, exploitation routes, competitor analysis etc.; through to the higher levels where the development is taken to market.
Separation of the Technological and Commercial aspects of a project into distinct scales allows each facet of the development process to be considered independently, resulting in a clearer picture of the future developmental needs.
Figure 2: Definitions of the Commercial Readiness Levels adopted by RCNDE
Tracking project progress
It is useful to plot the progress of a project on a two-dimensional grid that plots the TRL against the CRL, as shown in the graph below. In this example, the progress roughly follows the dark green region in the chart where TRL and CRL keep pace with each other, a path that can be considered to be ideal.
Deviation from the ideal path can provide a warning of any unnecessary risks that might be developing. For example, if the path entered into the red region at the top-left of the chart, then technological progress would be advanced but there could be a high commercial risk if it turned out later that there was not a market for the development, or that a similar product or service already existed. Similarly, it would be a risk to pursue commercial activities too strongly when technological work is still at an early stage. If it transpires that a technology cannot deliver results as desired then entering the yellow region at the bottom-right of the chart would incur unnecessary costs.
The chart of TRL versus CRL is a useful tool for determining that a project is progressing to plan and provides warning of undesirable technical or commercial risks.
Members of RCNDE can receive a copy of a report describing the full details of the TRL and CRL systems we use by emailing us.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency (Energy) website also has further information for all.