This article is a transcription of episode #9 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Voytek Hołysz - COO of Mindsailors and Mikołaj Wiewióra - senior designer, discuss the famous TRL scale. A scale developed by NASA to deascribe a Technology's Readiness Level. This scale has been widely adapted in product development, even though it is not about products itself.
Wojciech Hołysz: This is a difficult subject. I mean, for me at least, it is NASA's TRL scale. We use it, a lot of companies use it, a lot of institutions use it. And maybe it's quite simple and it's primal form, sort of it's primal use, but as it went out to a wider audience, it became a bit difficult. So maybe let's start with a simple summary. What is the TRL scale originally and what it is in practice, in the industrial design sort of branch today?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Okay, so from the beginning, starting from NASA, which is that place where the TRL scale was established, it was primarily used for new technologies, for new upcoming ideas that are going to be technologies used in the space industry.
Wojciech Hołysz: And what does it apply to those new technologies? It helps to say at what stage of development this technology is.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, how ready this technology is to deploy in space missions.
Wojciech Hołysz: So TRL actually stands for technology readiness level.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yeah, indeed.
Wojciech Hołysz: And like you said, it's about technologies, but we use it, and like I said, many other companies and public institutions use it to describe stages of a product's development. So how does it transcribe to product development?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: And that's not the easy part. That's not the easiest part of description because, one of many frameworks that design studios or even companies without focus on design are using. Today, I thought about it. It's some kind of an approach on how to describe an iterative process in a waterfall manner. So that, you know that developing a technology needs some iterations. It needs prototyping, it needs development. It needs time to be made from an idea, from a spark of an idea in someone's head up to finished technology or a product. So if you try to describe this loop of iterative process, in some kind of a waterfall manner, you can use TRL scale.
Wojciech Hołysz: So theoretically, like an agile way of work, agile methodology is opposite to waterfall. But here, agile is described within waterfall stages, sort of?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: That's my interpretation of course. But I believe that it makes sense because, once you reach a milestone in your product development stage, you can call that it has reached a certain TRL level.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Because when we speak about the ideas, it's TRL one. So just as it's stated, basic principles.
Wojciech Hołysz: Just a concept.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Just a concept. Some invention that is sparking another idea in your head. This is the readiness number one. So we have only the idea, and if we jump through the steps of TRL scale, we get more and more developed ideas that are translating into technologies and eventually into products.
Wojciech Hołysz: So what's at the end of the scale? Number one is the first step, and the last step is?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: The last step is technology, because we are still speaking about the basic definition of, TRL the last step, it's called TRL number line. It's the actual system that is proven in space missions.
Wojciech Hołysz: So it's not a prototype. It's already been prototyped, tested, and it works. It's a working proven solution?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. But I think that putting a prototype on this scale might be a bit confusing for now, because when we start thinking about space technologies, I believe that these products are one..
Wojciech Hołysz: One of a kind.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: One of a kind. So these are actually prototypes.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah, because they're not prepared for mass production. Yes. Right.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: But they are very well documented prototypes, they are very well developed. They are measured, they are sort of proven that in real life, in the real mission that they need to serve robustly for the whole time of the mission. People are certain that this thing, this technology will work for them. So this is tier number nine.
Wojciech Hołysz: So before we get into each of the stages, what do you suppose was the initial need for such a scale outside of NASA's use? So why did institutions and industrial design companies, engineering companies, why did they jump on the scale and adapt it to product development?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: A good question. I believe that the problem was with misunderstanding of what the design people say and what clients understand.
Wojciech Hołysz: Okay. So sort of a difference between expectations of both sides?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Definitely yes. Because when we say prototype, I've got several types of prototypes in my head. We can speak about prototypes in different ways.
Wojciech Hołysz: We actually had a talk about prototypes with Anita, about a prototype being one of the words, phrases, definitions that can be confusing because people sort of intuitively sometimes explain to themselves what a prototype is. And like you said, as a designer and as an engineer, you have several types of prototypes you work with. And people outside of the design world or engineering world, they think that a prototype, for example, is a master copy of a device, and it can be just duplicated in mass production easily.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. And that's why some institutions including the European Union and the National Centers of Research and Development, like in Poland for example, are using this scale, because they tend to describe the level of development of a product within this scale. So it's a translation from understanding the technology readiness into the product development readiness level. And I think it's a good scale so that you can understand on what type of prototype we are speaking about. Because I believe that a TRL scale might be only used for the prototyping stages. It's not the scale that might be implemented into the mass production of the product or the production.
Wojciech Hołysz: After TRL 9, there is the production stage.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. Yeah, definitely. Yes. Because you've mentioned the master copy. It's usually described as the golden sample prototype. And it's one of the method used while introducing something new to the manufacturer, to the vendor, because you can say that you've got the whole bunch of papers with drawings, with all the tolerances, the surface finishes, these technology papers like how to make this part specifically, how to meet standards that you need to meet or your product needs. But all this stuff is a bit confusing when you don't see the actual sample of the product. It might be confusing. Of course, there are companies that are very experienced in this area, so the drawing says more than everything, but preparation of this drawing is very difficult because you have to know that this language that you use in the drawing is understandable by both sides. And sometimes when a designer makes this drawing, he means something different, making this drawing. And the one who reads this drawing still wants something more or less...
Wojciech Hołysz: It's like reading emotions through emails.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, definitely yes. And while you have the color sample, the prototype that already looks like the product, you can say, I want something like this. But I want this to be manufactured in a manner that is efficient, that is economically satisfying for me. And my clients will eventually buy it.
Wojciech Hołysz: And that is described in these papers, but this is what we are going to achieve.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes.
Wojciech Hołysz: So this was if I understand you correctly, this probably was incorporated into the design world and the product development world in order to make sure all sides of each project stand on the same ground and understand each other correctly regarding any confusing elements, processes, or whatever.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes.
Wojciech Hołysz: Okay. And you say the scale is good. So let's go through it because it was intended for technology, not a product. And you've mentioned that the first level is this: let's sort of spark an idea for a technology. So does this transcribed to like having an idea for a product?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. You can call it like this, or you can call it like, I've got a bunch of technologies or a bunch of materials already on the market, but I don't know what to do with them, and I've got an idea to use ceramic material. Of course, it's a retrospective because it is on the market, I just want our listeners to understand it by example. So for several decades, for example, watches were made out of metal. And some time ago one company and another came up with an idea to make a ceramic bracelet. So there was a ceramic material that was scratch resistant. It's extremely scratch resistant. It's quite beautiful in appearance. So two factors that are really important in watches, especially in this high quality and expensive watches. So they've made a statement that it's possible or probable that ceramics might be used one manufacturing bracelets, but of course it was just an idea. How to make it, this is another topic. So this idea came from this level of readiness, like number one, we have an idea into several rounds of prototyping testing and developing this idea into final, for example, bracelet.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. Okay. So at the very first stage we have this idea, and once we come up with it, what's the process of getting to stage two? That will be the first step to make?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Actually I probably merged these two because there is an idea. Step number two is an idea how to merge it into something. So the idea of application.
Wojciech Hołysz: Okay. With the technology use of the scale, first you have just an idea, then you come up with an application for it. For example, you come up with some gizmo, and then you think, hey, I don't know, fishermen might want to use it. So that's the second stage?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. This is the second stage, because to further develop this technology, you have to have a target group. So you need to know who is going to benefit with your idea. So for example, the technology might just have been introduced, or it might be just an invention or discovery because it's not an invention, it's a discovery of a chemical element. So you have a chemical element that you don't know what to do with. But it has some properties that are promising within a particular area of technologies. So you are trying to focus on this element on how to apply this into your market that you want to target.
Wojciech Hołysz: Or you just come up with a market that might find it useful. So this might be a chemical element, like in a sense of technology and inventions like that, when we speak about product development, it doesn't have to be an invention of something totally new, but for example, of a combination of some things that brings a new effect to life.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Definitely yes. Because I believe that innovation is not so frequent when considering something really totally new. Unless the basic principles of science would not change, I think that it's readily possible to invent something or discover something.
Wojciech Hołysz: We've already discovered so much that further discoveries are well hidden
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. But we've got a lot of room and a lot of space for improvement in already established markets because we learn from different markets, from different specializations that ideas from one industry can be easily sometimes with...
Wojciech Hołysz: Difficulties.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: With difficulties, but applied into another industry and benefitted the people, and the people will benefit from these innovations. So sometimes innovation is just merging one technology from the space industry, the technology from material science, and making for example the nanoparticles that will be sprayed on your shower cabin. And you are free to go with cleaning.
Wojciech Hołysz: And you no longer have to clean it. Or at least rinse the water off.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Or at least making it easier. So this wouldn't be possible without someone who thought, okay, we've got this nanotechnology that is really awesome and it's helping people get to the Moon or to Mars. It's helping in medicine, why can't we make this technology affordable and place it into a product that...
Wojciech Hołysz: Consumer products.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, that saves people's time. And that's easy.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So after the initial spark and an idea of application of how to use this technology or solution invention, what's the next stage?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: The next stage is the proof of concept. So DTRL number three, it ends with a proof of concept. So You no longer have just an idea on how to make it, but you can prove it with a device or with a thing that is physical, but not only it can be a software, because we are living in the digital era. So innovations are not only material, you can call it that there are atoms and there are bits. And bits are also very important now in our life. So these ideas might also be soft like software but really helpful in our life.
Wojciech Hołysz: So a proof of concept would be not already building the product, but just making sure that the idea and application that we had might be possible or plausible.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, you can understand it by putting all the different things that you think you need to build into a proof of this concept. That's why prototyping platforms happened. Like, Arduino, like Lego, because Lego is also very important...
Wojciech Hołysz: It's a prototyping platform.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes it's a prototyping platform, especially with Mindsailors today. But you've also got these scripting languages of programming like Python, even easier to learn those blocks...
Wojciech Hołysz: Like the no-code solutions.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, no-code solutions, but you can easily prototype the concept that you think might work. And after this proof of concept, you know that this will work. But this is just a rough idea. It's not optimized because you are using components that are definitely not for mass production. And not for even manufacturing on a small scale, because you spend a lot of time assembling these little puzzles into the idea that you think that might work.
Wojciech Hołysz: I remember talking to Rafał from our embedded electronics team, and he described what a proof of concept for them often is. Even though the plan is to build like a small electronic device, let's say a wearable, then a proof of concept may be a quite big assembly of electronical parts and cables that are not neatly wired at all. It looks horrible, it's not wearable at all, but it proves that it works, that the concept works, that such components combined together will work as intended. And then the rest of the process is about making it a small wearable, but the proof of concept doesn't have to be the right size. It doesn't have the right to have the right energy consumption, heat dissipation or whatever. It's just proving the basic concept, right?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. I think that one of the best examples might be a touch screen. Because we are so used to the touch screens that are embedded in our cell phones, even our watches, all the different devices that are already surrounding us, but the beginnings of the touch screens was placing some kind of matrix of a foil on the top of a big display. It was cranky. It was impossible for a regular man to think of this technology, that it can be deployed in this foil device. It took several years to develop this technology and this started with an idea on how to make the interface more friendly.
Wojciech Hołysz: And that's a good example of the difference I think between technology readiness and product readiness. Because what you just mentioned was an example of a technology. It wasn't like someone was thinking how I could make a touch sensitive wristwatch. They were just thinking technology, like touch sensitive surface screen whatever. And that technology was being developed. It went its own path of TRLs before some other people probably could be thinking about products that use this technology, and they started their own TRL loop sort of.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: True. I think that it's a good comparison that the technology needs its own development path and the product needs its own development path. Once you reach the level line in TRL, you can search for this technology probably because in early stages, I think up to number four, this technology does not come out of a laboratory because you've got these ideas. So...
Wojciech Hołysz: Scientific basically.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yeah, they are scientifically difficult in general. So these are things that need a special environment because for example, nanoparticles, which I mentioned before of different materials, but nanoparticles of metals are highly flammable, for example. So you need to have a special environment for them to do research.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah to work on them.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Because if you make this at home, your home will probably be burned because you will not know these small details about the material science and you'll blow yourself up.
Wojciech Hołysz: You guys need to remember that burning your house is not on the TRL scale.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Definitely. So jumping to the product, when we have the technology already established and already well described and well developed, we can think of a product that utilizes this technology. So that's why the touch screen, now is very popular, but it took a lot of time and a lot of different stages of development to make these screens so thin and so invisible, like the capacitive screen on your touch screen phone, that you not only perceive it as, okay it is...
Wojciech Hołysz: Something very obvious.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Very obvious that you have, but someone and some companies spent lots of money and lots of time to develop this technology so that you don't see it.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah, sure. So you've mentioned that in the original material meaning, a technology doesn't leave the laboratory up until level four. I mean after level four. So we haven't talked about level four yet. What would that be?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: This is the testing of the proof of concept. You think it works, but now you've got some testing procedure to make.
Wojciech Hołysz: Okay.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Is it robust, for example.
Wojciech Hołysz: Does it work every time?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Does it work every time? Does it work for a longer period of time? Because sometimes when something works for an hour, we say, okay, it works. But how about that you have to ride your car as a racing team, within 24 hours without any problems? It's difficult to measure without actually riding this distance within this time.
Wojciech Hołysz: Or on the other end of the scale, when you have a space mission, sometimes it takes months or years, or even decades, for a satellite to go wherever. And whatever you put on it needs to work constantly for years or longer.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. So you've got to prepare some testing procedure. Sometimes it's not possible to test if something works for 10 years, because you won't have time for that, but you have time for simulating this environment, for example for 10 years. Like special chambers that make this process quicker. So you are testing this proof of concept on a basic level. These tests that are possible within this proof of concept. Because you still have a bunch of cables and a bunch of different mechanical things on your table. For example, you want to test if it can be used in lower temperatures like minus 10 degrees, for example.
Wojciech Hołysz: Degrees Celsius.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Degrees Celsius yes. And you cannot just put these things that you have open into this environment because you will get to know pretty easily that it won't work. You have to build another level of prototype that is prepared for this test.
Wojciech Hołysz: So would it be okay to say when applying these stages, I mean stage three and stage four of the TRL two product development, that would be the proof of concept and testing it with a product that might even include interviewing potential clients or users to see if this device might even be useful for them?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes you can start with it. It's really risky from the perspective of an investor. Because when you invest money in the research on this level, of course risk is developing the product that is...
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah, there's a risk that evolved from the beginning.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. But if you ask people about the proof of concept, you have to know how to ask questions to get the right answers. Because if you ask questions about it, do you like it?
Wojciech Hołysz: It's a whole different subject for us to talk about how to perform such interviews and research.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So you've got to ask questions more of the usability, or the need functionality or the need. So you can test it in the proof of concept stage. But it's pretty difficult because people tend to look at it as if it was a finished idea. And you have to make sure that they understand it's not a finished one, it's just the beginning of the road.
Wojciech Hołysz: So what would be after level four when the technology leaves the laboratory, or we have a proven concept of a product that we believe is possible to build, will work and people will probably want to buy it or use it? What's level five?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Level five is taking this thing out of a laboratory, basically.
Wojciech Hołysz: So doing the same, but outside of a controlled environment?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, so you've learned how to control the local environment for this device or for this idea because an example in the real world, the material world might be 3D printing out of metal powder. So you've got this technology that you can 3D print in an environment that the printers is placed into, I don't know, maybe an argon chamber, and you've got this clear space that you don't have any problems within the atmosphere, within the pressure, within all the different aspects.
Wojciech Hołysz: Very controlled environment.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes very controlled environment. And now you have to place this 3D printer in a regular space where just people work.
Wojciech Hołysz: And it should work too.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: And it should work too. Now you have a different bunch of problems to solve. Because you've got...
Wojciech Hołysz: So you're no longer fighting with just the basic concept challenges, but with environment and user challenges, probably
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. But when speaking of technology, it's usually a small tweaking of the whole system that you've already designed. But this small tweaking might take a lot of time. Because when you take the device or the idea, the proof of concept, the first prototype and so on and so forth, out of the laboratory, there is a time that you don't know what you don't know. You have to discover what the problem will be. It's not possible to predict all the problems that you will be facing. So this is something that when you take the idea out of the laboratory, you need to spend more time on developing this idea out of it, out of this safe environment.
Wojciech Hołysz: So with product design, would that be testing a prototype with users, how would it translate to a product development?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. It might be testing it with users. It might be testing the initial concepts of some specific requirements for the device. Maybe something that is good to describe is about waterproofness. Because when you have the device, the prototype that you want to be waterproof, you can test it in a laboratory. Let's compare it to this environment from NASA into product development. You can have a laboratory environment, like still water sitting on the table in a bowl. And you place your first prototype on TRL number four, into this bow, and you check for some time. Take it out and you see if it leaks, if it's okay, you can assume that this will work outside, but it's just an assumption. Because taking this outside makes some changes. For example you want to put this little thing that you have already designed into the sea. And now you've got salt, you've got moving water. Because the water flows on your device. Of course, you can steer your device in this laboratory environment, but it's not the same. The temperature of the water is different. The temperature varies and because there are gradients of temperature in the water. So that this part is once a little bit bigger. It's a microscopic change. It might be bigger, might be smaller. And here it is waterproof, here it isn't
Wojciech Hołysz: Shrinks and expands and the pressure might change.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: So there are a lot of different small things that might impact your...
Wojciech Hołysz: So in general, that would mean that you repeat the same types of law of laboratory tests, but outside of the laboratory, often in conditions that would be very difficult to do in a laboratory or simply economically wouldn't make sense and they need to be tested well in real life, or with real users.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Exactly. So once you've finished these tests, you can say that you are on TRL number five because you are not on a particular TRL until you reach all the...
Wojciech Hołysz: Requirements.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Requirements for this TRL.
Wojciech Hołysz: It's a batch to earn.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. It's a batch to earn.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. Then we go to TRL six with laboratory tests, environment and user tests. What's next?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: The next is something that is hard to understand in terms of a product. Because on TRL number five, we've got component validation in the relevant environment, and on TRL number six, it's a system or subsystem demonstration and relevant environment.
Wojciech Hołysz: So with product development, that would be together with TRL five and six?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. We can think of managing it because we cannot think of a prototype without all the parts assembled together. But we can understand it like this. For example, we've got one project that has to comply with IP 54. So we had to be sure that all the spaces that are between different parts need to be IP 54. When we tried to test the first prototype for this IP rate, it was difficult because we didn't know where the leak was, because we had two spaces. We had one space under the button of the device and one space between the half of the enclosure. And we didn't know where the actual leak was happening because it was leaking of course, as the first prototype. So we jumped into our software and made different kinds of prototypes for testing different parts of the ceiling. So one prototype tested only the enclosure itself, the two halves of the enclosure. So the button that was on the top was merged with the top case so that we had only one space to test. So this prototype was testing a part or a component. And the second prototype was testing the button only, how does this perform, and when we are speaking about TRL number six, we have to merge it. So we have to test both the button and the enclosure. If this meets our standards or our needs or the IP rate, then we are on TRL number six. We have the system.
Wojciech Hołysz: So it might be applicable directly, for example, a product would consist of several important parts integrated into a system like you would need to test, I don't know, a welder part that is on a motion arm, for example. You need to test several elements separately and then test them together in a system, sort of.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes.
Wojciech Hołysz: So number five is testing a component. Level six is testing that and other components within a system. So that will be the entire device in our case. And we're getting closer to the end of the scale. So what would be at level seven?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: I will return to it, but I would like to add that in our understanding sometimes system and subsystem might be also understood as assembly and sub-assembly. Because we are 99% in the material world, so we are talking about products, the physical ones. So we are talking and speaking about assemblies. So this is a component or a part, and then testing the sub-assembly or the whole assembly. But jumping back to the scale, we've got level seven and now the problem appears because we've got the system prototype in a space environment. So testing in a space environment.
Wojciech Hołysz: So that would be probably testing a prototype that is no longer a proof of concept, no longer a crude version of the idea, but something much closer to the final product and testing it again in a true environment with users. Would that be more or less...
Mikołaj Wiewióra: We can put or delete the word of space, and put people into it. Because people...
Wojciech Hołysz: Are just as deadly as space.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: I didn't want to say that, but people are the best judges of the quality, especially if you are designing for children. Children are the best destroyers in the world. So once you give them the thing that you design for them, if it's destroyed within 10 minutes, it's not a toy that you would like to manufacture.
Wojciech Hołysz: So I guess children should be the next Marvel villain.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Some kind of. We can take out the space word and place it into the people space.
Wojciech Hołysz: So basically it seems like it is natural, but just state it, the further we are in the scale, the more detailed tweaks we are actually doing, on the technology itself, at least, because it seems more about usability form. Will it hold up to time and constant usage, for example after we have something that we can test with the final users in some larger groups at level seven, what would be level eight? Because it seems like we are almost there.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. It seems like we are almost there, but still there are improvements to make. On each step, on each level, you can learn something new. Speaking of the usage time of the product life cycle, speaking of the materials that we are using, sometimes we are using the materials that are just a representation of the materials that are going to be used. So sometimes it depends. It doesn't have to happen all the time. But it happens that you have to make the prototype out of the materials that are going to be the end materials. So you still do not have tooling. You still do not have all these things around manufacturing, but you need to have the product, the prototype that is made out of the same materials. So you can say that it is something already proven to behave like you expect it to behave within these materials that you are using. You cannot test materials for longevity without having the same materials used. If you build a car out of clay or the exterior out of clay, you won't be able to make it as thin as sheet metal. And still having the form, you have to jump into the right technology, if you are building a prototype of a cup, you cannot make it out of paper without any glue or things that make it waterproof. It'll just be destroyed in a few minutes. And of course, people like the form, people like the weight, which might be the problem because paper is pretty, pretty light. And if you want to make sure that people still like it, if it's more heavy, for example, you have to make it out of material that enables you to test this little particle thing like weight.
Wojciech Hołysz: So level eight would be making, basically getting as close as possible to the final thing to the final product, without assembly line, production line and all the tooling necessary, right?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes.
Wojciech Hołysz: So you could say that at the end of level eight, you have the golden sample?
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, we can call it, but still we have to remember that we have reached this level after completing these tests.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah sure. So at the end of this process, you can say that you have this, and you are at level eight.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. We are at level eight. So if we are speaking of TRL, we still have one step forward. And this step, in this scale, it's written like actual system flight proven through successful mission operations. Which is still part to understand in product development stages, but we can call it like the MVP for example. So we've got the minimal viable product, or we can understand it also as a batch of prototypes that we are sending to our future customers for further tests.
Wojciech Hołysz: But these are still prototypes you're talking about after getting to level eight or are you...
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes, after getting to level eight in the perfect world, that's how Kickstarter wanted to work. So that people have ideas, they are sharing their ideas in the early stages because they don't know what's the demand for their idea. And Kickstarter was meant to participate in this idea making possible. So they wanted people who invented something or who thought that their idea might be good to market. So they wanted to test it, and they had some Barkers. These Barkers were the privileged people to have the first batch of products, so that they could test it and then spread the word about this product. This is how a lot of YouTubers work. This is how a lot of Instagrammers work. They work on future products that are going to be marketed. And when we hear about it, there are usually some disclosures in these videos or in these threads. Like, okay, it's just a sample. It's not a manufacturing ready product. That's why, because people want to know about the product before it's manufactured. It's good for the manufacturer or the idea maker. And it's good for clients because clients don't want to buy things that are not already tested. There are of course, early adopters that are buying everything that is new, but it's not the mass. These are hundreds or thousands of people in a particular market that want to test something, even if it doesn't work perfectly. But if we are speaking of a must-manufactured product, we have to make sure that as it's said, flight proven.
Wojciech Hołysz: If I understand correctly. Then after we reach that level, the final level of the TRL scale in regards to product development, we have a product that is not yet mass produced. So it's like a small batch of prototypes that has been tested by real users, and we have as much of a certainty that we can, that we are ready for mass production. So only after that we get out of the TRL scale and we go to manufacturers, we think about tooling and other aspects.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. We can of course think of the tooling a little bit earlier when we have TRL number eight, for example, and after completing the TRL number nine maybe we can tweak the tooling. We can tweak the process of injection molding for example, because we know that we have a certain quality of our parts of the product. Just an example. People tend not to like this surface finish that we have on a particular part because they say that it's not fingerprints resistant. Maybe it's difficult to clean something that is...
Wojciech Hołysz: Something we haven't thought about.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: That we haven't thought about or we have thought, but it doesn't work in the real world. If you think of a mobile phone, for example, all the manufacturers want to make phones beautiful and slim. Neatly looking pieces of technology and we still need to put them into rubber cases. Because this is what we want. We want to be sure that when the phone drops, it'll still be a phone, not a piece of technology that is not working for you. So people are okay when the beautifulness of the phone is covered. And for some reason, we are still buying these two things separately and there is no one that is going to deliver you a phone within the case, in one product. Because it's called a rugged phone and it's ugly. And people do not like ugly things when buying premium products. They want to think that they've got something beautiful but still covered.
Wojciech Hołysz: Yeah. So I guess that would be it, because level nine is the last one. So from the basic concept of just a thought, all the way up to having a tested, validated prototype with final users in a real environment, with all the tweaks you can imagine when you're ready to basically go to the manufacturer and work on your production line. In the beginning it seemed quite confusing, especially translating the technology readiness to product development or product readiness. But as we've talked from the very first level, just a thought of a possibility, up to having a prototype that's tested in all the possible ways with final users and the final environment and basically being ready just to go to the manufacturer to prepare your production line. That's what TRL is, and that's how we use it in the design world, and engineering world to communicate with institutions and with clients in order to, like we said, manage expectations sort of, but also get a firm fundamental of what that we understand each other basically.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Yes. Going back to basics, TRL scale was meant to serve the high complexity things that are made in a low scale, at a low scale. So as we understand, products are not as complex as space technologies, but they are made at a higher scale.
Wojciech Hołysz: You mean volume.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Or volume, yeah. So that's why the TRL scale is understood by us as a design studio and institutions like research and development centers, some kind of prototyping stages. We cannot say that level nine is a ready to market product within all the supply of tooling, the manufacturers and so on. So what you've said is true, but I wanted to mention or to add this information to complete maybe this definition.
Wojciech Hołysz: Well I hope if anyone had doubts about the TRL scale or was just curious about it, I hope this conversation helped someone understand it better. It certainly did help me, even though we did prepare for this talk. Still it was confusing. But now everything is clear.
Mikołaj Wiewióra: Good to know. Thank you.
Mikołaj Wiewióra is a senior designer at Mindsailors. He has extensive experience in leading teams of designers and engineers on all stages of the design process.
Voytek Holysz is the COO of Mindsailors with 15 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.
IDology #9 - NASAs TRL scale in product development
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