April 30, 2019

You’ve invested millions of dollars in engineering and developing the latest and greatest technologies so you can push out more products from your newly constructed process plant facility. You’ve hired one of the industry’s top construction teams to make sure your project is completed on time and under budget. Now construction is complete, it’s just a matter of “flipping a switch” and reaping the fruits of your labor. If only starting up a new plant or production system was that easy!

The truth is, starting up any industrial plant from scratch is far more complicated. While construction crews might have experience with a particular piping system, construction method or equipment, they don’t have the expertise when it comes to the actual process. In other words, how all the components they’ve built work together to magically create phosphoric acid–or any other complex processed chemical for that matter! Similarly, if you left the startup squarely in the hands of plant operations staff, even though they might have the skill sets necessary to operate the facility, they would still require training in order to understand the new systems and how to run them. So, how do you combine the expertise of engineering design, construction, and plant operations? With a good commissioning plan and team!

Over the years, I have been fortunate to lead numerous commissioning efforts for industrial facilities across the U.S. and internationally. In this post, using a chemical process plant as an example, I lean into that experience, sharing some of the ins and outs of the commissioning process, and the benefits of engaging the third-party services of a skilled commissioning team.


Gimme Three Steps

It’s important to note that there is no clear definition as to when construction ends and commissioning begins, and no exact time when commissioning ends and operations takes over. But in summary, commissioning is a vital step toward the end of the construction process with the express purpose of handing over a safe, efficient and operation-ready facility to the owner. Commissioning typically falls within three steps:

Pre-Commissioning: This stage involves activities that occur during the final stages of construction, including pre-functional test (PFT) inspections, end-of-construction punch lists and check sheets, factory and site acceptance testing of control systems, instrument loop checks and more. At Gresham Smith, we utilize a commissioning software called CxAlloy. This cloud-based program allows our commissioning team to add documentation remotely, giving the contractor immediate access to vital information such as PFT inspections, photos, equipment and piping drawings, all systemized to match process systemization and schedule priorities.



Commissioning: Sometimes referred to as “cold” commissioning, this second step involves running and testing the process without adding the chemicals. Depending on the complexity of the project, commissioning can be executed on individual systems, groups of systems, or even partial systems. The commissioning timeline is a function of construction progress, and a good commissioning team may be required to modify system commissioning as systems reach construction completion. Cold commissioning is typically executed by the owner with support provided by the commissioning team.

Startup: This final step is where the plant is finally brought into operation by the owner.



A Vital Project Roadmap

Successful commissioning starts with a commissioning plan, which establishes a framework for how commissioning will be handled and managed on a project. Serving as a project roadmap, it identifies all parties involved, their roles and responsibilities, and the documentation required.

Planning begins with a solid schedule and process systemization. The latter is where the commissioning process engineer takes the project’s piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) and identifies sub-systems that can be broken out and prioritized based on a logical sequence of events to start up the facility. The commissioning engineer will then work with the contractor to prioritize construction completion to meet this systemized startup sequence. This allows the contractor to refocus construction efforts in a way that permits an overlap of plant startup activities with construction, minimizing the overall time required to commission and start up the facility.


Diversity Rules: Selecting the Right Players

Selecting a diversified commissioning team is key and should include a chemical process engineer, a mechanical engineer, and an electrical, controls and Instrumentation engineer. A chemical process engineer will help with understanding processes as they are designed. A mechanical engineer is mostly responsible for the full check and verification of all mechanical equipment in the field. The electrical, controls and instrumentation engineer will handle all electrical power distribution systems and instrumentation testing and documentation. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of all the responsibilities for every player on the team, as the scope of commissioning differs from plant to plant and client to client.



Document, Document, Document!

The true value of commissioning documentation can easily go unnoticed. If the commissioning is a success, the commissioning documents may remain untouched for many years. However, if something does go awry, it is extremely important to have a detailed collection of all commissioning tests and procedures to verify that everything was done to the correct standards and practices. This is vital as it will help solve the root cause of any machine or system failure. At the end of a project, when the question is asked: “Was that test completed?” a member of the compliance team should always be able to say with confidence: “Yes. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Every final approval and sign-off for cleaning, testing, inspection and acceptance flows through the commissioning team. They will record all documents, which will be compiled into a handover package. Handover serves as the sign-off on responsibility from the contractor to the owner, who will then be 100 percent responsible for operating each system.


Making a List & Checking it Twice!

Another significant task of the commissioning team is to verify that construction is proceeding as necessary to start up the plant. Any deficiencies will be documented on a punch list and then distributed to the construction team for rectification. While conducting the walkthrough, a commissioning engineer won’t just be looking for loose bolts or missing valves! They will also be evaluating the system from an all-important operator’s perspective. This includes checking for safety issues around the work area, making sure that all valves and platforms are accessible to operators, and that the system can be operated safely.


Understanding How the Pieces Fit

Although a good commissioning plan and team can make or break a project’s budget and schedule, it’s an often-overlooked step in the process that can save a company time and money at every stage of a project while averting safety and operability issues, increasing productivity, and lowering downtime. Commissioning is one of the program management services we offer at Gresham Smith. From conceptual studies, engineering and design, procurement and construction management to commissioning and startup support, we have the expertise in a project’s life cycle to understand how the various pieces tie together, and perhaps most importantly, give our clients the confidence to finally push the big, green button!