This blog discusses a new technology readiness level for nanotechnology enabled materials
Technology readiness levels (TRLs) started with NASA and has since grown to serve as a uniform concept to ranking the maturity of new technologies. Organizations now use it as a tool for investment, stage gating, or development prioritization. Since NASA, many other TRL scales have been created to different industries. None, however, have addressed the unique challenges of launching an advanced material or nanotechnology enabled product.
The first NSA TRL scale focused on computer systems and device integration for space launch
Obviously, the first TRL scale was developed for system level integration for launching the space shuttle. Each level focuses on the component integration and testing. The language reads like an electronic part, such as a board or switch, working within a larger electronic system.
Like a switch, advanced materials are often a part in a larger component. They must be tested and verified like any other new product. Unlike a device, however, there are additional considerations required before an advanced material is truly a proven technology. Considerations include large scale production, batch to batch variability, and application specific testing.
As such, I would like to offer a new TRL scale for advanced materials. At a high level, this TRL scale will appear like many of the other TRL scales. The stages of development cover concept, validation, and demonstration. The details of these stages, however, are very different.
Like every other TRL, an advanced material starts as a concept. Early stage lab testing and discovery enables improvement over earlier performance limits. From there, the discovery is validated at scale, typically in small-scale tests. Validation involves third party testing, and application-specific testing. Success in the validation phase usually comes with a customer partnership. From there, larger scale testing is used to demonstrate performance in real-world parts or systems. This is a common tripping point for many technologies because of production scale-up requirements. Going to scale means larger process, re-validation of material properties, and a more comprehensive set of tests. Robustness of scale means that you have proven at-scale performance with low batch-to-batch variability. Here, you have delivered product on-time and reliably.
The advanced materials technology readiness level scale has 7 levels and at most 2 sub-levels. The detailed description of each level is outlined in the table below.
A new material can move from concept (TRL0) to coupon level testing (TRL3) relatively quickly. Here you are working internally with your development team or through contracted third-party testing organizations. There is little external influence, but a great deal of learning. If successful, however, additional vested parties come to the table, including customers, suppliers, and OEMs. I prefer to talk with vested parties and consumers early, typically around TRL level 2. This helps guide the internal development team and establishes expectations.
From TRL 3, however, the amount of time and rigor increases. With an end-use in mind, the material testing intensifies. Customer resource commitments drive increased focuses and end-product timelines. At this level, customer engineering teams are involved and design reviews begin. Getting past TRL 4 and 5 can be somewhat chaotic, due to customer learning how to use (and benefit from) your technology. It is also common for quality teams to be unsure how to test the new material. Often hand-holding helps focus the teams re-focus on end goal and carry through this phase.
Before moving to a fully integrated supply chain with TRL 7, customer require demonstration of supply chain maturity (TRL6). This is critical, and expensive, requirement. Here, you are supporting full-scale operations at your facility and the customers. You are selling some product, but production is slow and there is a lot of waste. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate quality and strengthen your end-customer relationships. Being attentive and helpful can build a lot of relationship equity.
There is a balance between progress and internal investment as you move through each TRL. Often, internal investment leads customer progress. Meaning that internal investment in capacity and capabilities are required before progress can be made with customers. This is a common chicken-egg problem for materials companies. Keeping the progress in lock-step with customer expectations is essential. It is also important to not over-extend the companies capital investment too early. Increasing fixed costs too quickly can sink a company.
You also may notice two sub-steps in the TRL table. TRL 2a and 4a focus on scalability. Often bench-top operations are scientifically focused and not concerned with large-scale production. Before a technology is viable for market-scale consumption, however, a company needs to be able to produce it as the associated scale and below the associated price. If a technology is not developed with a scalable process in mind, TRL 2a is an important step in the development process. Material properties are intertwined with the manufacturing process. It is impossible to decouple the two. If you change a production step or unit operation, you risk losing or changing key characteristics of the material. TRL 2a is there to hold the development team accountable for the long-term success of the product. I have seen too many companies skip this step at their own peril.
TRL 4a is similar in that scale-up of a process inherently changes the product characteristics. Either it is a golden-reactor problem or simply that unit operations scale differently, but the full-scale process will be uniquely tuned to deliver the same (or close enough to the same) material as your bench-top or pilot scale process. Building shake-out time into your development timeline for TRL 4a will help manage expectations.
As you can also see, financial investment and time is not uniform when moving between each TRL. Early phase development of a new material can be quick and financially economical. Moving to pilot scale operations (TRL 3-4) requires additional personal and a higher burn rate. Massive investment typically required at TRL 5 – 7 with fixed capital investment and associated increase in operating costs.
At my previous company, I used a techno-economic model to project capital investment and operating costs. To go from a TRL 4 to a TRL 6 would require a 3x increase in annual burn rate. Below is an anecdotal graph of how cumulative investment increases with readiness levels.
I hope this new TRL tool can be helpful to you as you grow your business. Taking a real assessment of where you are and where you need to go can help manage expectations, investment, and customer relationships.
That’s all for now, thanks for reading!
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