What is Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL)?
Teams focused on taking an idea and making it into a manufactured product are faced with never ending decisions about how to best move forward with the product while simultaneously being aware of the risks that they are taking along the way.
It can be extremely difficult to be aware of and track all the factors that go into moving the process forward. Many end up putting their resources in the wrong place at the wrong time, or completely missing a risk factor. Sometimes they never recover. There is a tool specifically designed to help manufacturers keep track of their risks and to make sure that they are allocating resources to the most important tasks needed to have a successful product. That tool is called the Manufacturing Readiness Level or MRL.
A Brief History of MRL
The Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL) methodology is a means for assessing the maturity of manufacturing capabilities for a particular product. It was originally developed by the Department of Defense to improve manufacturing outcomes for weapons systems. The MRL methodology is now finding broader application across the hardware manufacturing landscape. The original problems encountered by the DoD was that they were experiencing much higher than anticipated costs in bringing new hardware to production as a result of poor scale up manufacturing practices. The problems they encountered are shared by many hardware product development teams. More specifically, these problems can mean success or failure when encountered by startups with limited resources who are working on bringing hardware products to market for the first time. MRL’s are an excellent tool when added to other common methodologies like Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) and Commercialization Readiness Levels (CRL). In fact, MRL’s are directly linked to TRLs that were adapted from another DoD methodology developed to assess the maturity of a technology for acquisition and use in NASA’s space programs. Methodologies like these can provide a valuable source of structure and direction to startups navigating the many complexities of product development.
What are MRLs?
As stated before, the MRL methodology is a means for assessing the maturity of manufacturing capabilities for a particular product. They are broken down into 10 levels across 9 major threads each with their own subthreads. By breaking the process of bringing a product to market into areas that can be assessed, it allows the manufacturer to see where their strengths are and what they need to work on. So, for example, you might have a very strong understanding of your costs and feel that you are at an MRL of 5 there, but you might not have anyone with the requisite skills to lead one of your process areas. In that thread you could be at an MRL of 2. Each subthread has its own MRL score, but the individual threads are not as important as the combination of threads on a particular level. For a more complete picture of the whole process, check out the original documentation here, and look forward to our startup friendly redesign, coming soon!
Generally, if you have achieved a higher MRL on certain subthreads and a lower MRL on others, your overall MRL would be the lowest of those scores. The reason for this is that the entire methodology is built on the idea of phase-gating development and de-risking investment in future steps. Phase gating means that you will work to meet all the subthread criteria at a given level before moving on to focus on the next level. For example, you may have an incredible manufacturing workforce available and sufficient funding to move forward with the project, but if you’re struggling to find suppliers for key components, then any future investments in development are going to be subject to your high supply chain risks. The individual subthreads are intentionally aligned along the specific levels to optimize your development process towards de-risking each next step and avoiding committing too many resources towards advancing one subthread when another could end the entire development process. This focus on minimized incremental advancement shares much with ideologies like Lean Startup, NSF I-Corp programs, and Agile.
The individual threads and subthreads encompass a wide range of engineering and manufacturing concerns related to scaling manufacturing and, together, attempt to capture the entire process of scaling. However, it’s also important, particularly for startups, to also understand what MRLs do not attempt to cover. MRLs do not deal with any business concerns, hiring beyond the manufacturing workforce, sales or marketing strategies, investment beyond budgeting and identifying potential investments, and, perhaps most importantly, they do not assess product market fit. It is important to understand this scope to know both when to lean on the expertise provided by the MRL methodology and also when to supplement it with resources from other domains like TRL and CRL as mentioned earlier.
So Why Use MRLs?
The purpose of using the MRL methodology is to address manufacturing and quality risks and issues through the development process to provide products that consistently meet customer requirements. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study of 54 weapons programs and found that Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) costs rose by 42% – $47.2B total – and schedules slipped by 20%, on average 2.5 years. As a result a number of US government agencies, including Congress, the GAO, and others, reached a consensus, “advanced weapon systems cost too much, take too long to field, and are too expensive to sustain.” The MRLs were consequently developed to contain those costs and meet those deadlines, or in other cases to more accurately determine them.
The efficacy of the MRL methodology has been proven through achieving widespread DoD adoption, despite being developed internally there was initial resistance to its implementation, and subsequent industry adoption by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Electric, and more. The DoD has identified the major benefits of the MRL methodology and assessments as follows
- Facilitating development of a manufacturing roadmap
- Identifying lagging elements in manufacturing maturity
- Involving all stakeholders early in the process
- Improving communications between different actors
Outside of the clear benefits to manufacturing, the phase-gate approach to product development encouraged by the MRL methodology supports financing validation. Investments in new ventures are often tied to milestones and without a common terminology to discuss manufacturing maturity it can be difficult to agree on appropriate milestones. Utilizing the MRL methodology and thread terminology can provide a framework to start these discussions from and tie milestones to very specific, relevant, and actionable goals.
How to Use MRLs?
If you’ve even glanced at the documentation provided by the DoD, you can see that the language and vocabulary can be a barrier to easy understanding. NextCorps and our university partners are in the process of making the MRL more accessible to start-ups. We’ve developed the easy assessment tool to get you started in assessing your current MRL is to use our Product Stage Assessment tool.
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