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Technological maturity, the key to safe innovation

Jorge Cordero

Jorge Cordero

AERTEC / Aerospace & Defence Systems

The technology life cycle goes through different stages; basic or fundamental research, applied research, experimental development and technological innovation. But how do you know which stage a technology is at? And, above all, what level of maturity does that technology need to be at to be leveraged or exploited?

The last question is especially relevant when the technology under development is part of a qualified manufacturing process or test method, or an enabling technology for a safety-critical product. This is something common in technologies applied to the aerospace and defense sector. That is why, in the 1970s, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) established a systematic method for measuring levels of technological maturity through a scale called the TRLs (Technology Readiness Levels) scale.

The path from research to industrialization is a long one, so a systematic evaluation of technological maturity is necessary, where the use of the TRLs scale is an international standard.

Since then, large companies, technology centers and even government agencies have adopted this method to evaluate the technologies they develop. As an example, it is currently the method considered in the research and innovation programs of the European Union such as Horizon Europe, Clean Aviation or SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research).

The TRLs scale spans the entire life cycle of a technology, from basic research to flight testing in a mission operational environment, when talking about a technology on board an aircraft. Nine maturity levels are defined:

  • TRL 1: observation of the basic principles of the technology.
  • TRL 2: formulation of the concept of the technology.
  • TRL 3: experimental proof of concept of the technology.

These first three correspond to levels associated with the basic research phase starting from an idea (TRL 0). One could consider here, for example, research on the properties of new materials, new software architectures and algorithms, and the publication of associated research articles in which an application of interest is proposed.

At the most advanced level, feasibility is then analyzed based on analytical and laboratory studies. It is the phase that goes from the idea to the prototype.

  • TRL 4: validation of the technology in the laboratory.
  • TRL 5: validation of the technology in a relevant environment

The next two levels correspond to the applied research of the technology through tests in the laboratory and in a relevant environment using prototypes at the component level.

  • TRL 6: demonstration of the technology in a relevant environment.
  • TRL 7: demonstration of a system prototype in an operational environment.
  • TRL 8: complete and qualified system.

These levels correspond to the phase of experimental development and start of deployment, covering small and large-scale prototyping with a higher level of integration and demonstration through an industrial pilot. The development phase ends with a demonstration, through an initial full implementation of the system to start the commercialization phase.

  • TRL 9: actual system tested in an operational environment.

Reaching TRL9 means having a first unit that has demonstrated its full functionality in the operating environment and is ready to be marketed.

Along the scale there are two aspects related to technology that advance in parallel; one is the level of technology integration; the other is the environment. Both are key to guaranteeing success in the implementation and deployment of the technology in question. As regards the former, it is important to consider the interfaces of the technology as well as the compatibility of its inputs and outputs with the components, subsystems and adjacent systems. For the latter aspect, it is essential to know the external factors to which the technology will be exposed during operation, in order to verify a priori its compatibility with the environment.

The maturity assessment methodology based on the TRLs scale is a methodology that is based on the scientific method and is founded on the generation of evidence. This evidence evolves according to the level at which the technology is. They may be:

  • Studies based in analytical or numerical levels that use simulations.
  • Results of laboratory tests.
  • Results of tests in a controlled environment (in the field or other relevant environment).
  • Results of tests in an operational environment.

Systematizing the evaluation of technological maturity entails the generation of evidence, usually documented, and its subsequent analysis to arrive at the level of maturity reached, with the aim of guaranteeing a successful (and safe) future implementation of the technology. To do this, it is not only necessary to strictly analyze specific aspects of the technology itself, but also those related to its industrialization and commissioning, economic aspects, etc.

This process therefore requires the involvement of different organizations, and not just engineering departments, whose technical experts are key to identifying and mitigating technological risks. All stakeholders must be involved in order to conduct an evaluation of a technical nature, but which spans diverse areas of knowledge: reliability, availability, maintainability, security (both safety and security), economic viability, supply chain, etc.

In the aeronautical field, when the technology is a product, the internal client is usually the Program, and the corresponding organization is responsible for assessing said technology and setting a price for it which the end client is willing to pay. But once commissioned, the corresponding organization will be responsible for keeping said technology operational, replacing or repairing its components in case of failure.

The path through the scale of TRLs is not an easy one; rather it is a path full of obstacles where you have to cross the “devil’s river” and the “valley of death” and navigate Darwin’s sea. This is precisely how they are called, and represent the main barriers on the way to the successful implementation, commercialization and industrialization of a technology.

The devil’s river is the obstacle that arises when moving from research to experimental development. The more known valley of death is the one that companies often find themselves in when they develop a technology but are unable to market it once it has matured. And this is not necessarily due to lack of commercial capacity, sometimes it is the environment (regulation, infrastructure, etc.) that makes it impossible.

Finally, Darwin’s sea represents the difficulties that a company would encounter after having developed a technology and having found the right market niche and client, but lacks all the necessary tools or resources for its industrialization.

Faced with all these problems, the systematic evaluation of the technological maturity of the portfolio of technologies under development becomes the only way to mitigate the risks associated with the different obstacles that are found on the path from research to industrialization.

 

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