The Commissioning Dilemma: Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later


Aside from notable personal exceptions for marriage or childbirth, few things can simultaneously invoke terror and excitement in an organization like large-scale capital investment. Investment managers get an opportunity to prove they can commit to, and meet, a budget and scope. Operations managers get shiny new equipment with the expectation that they will quickly achieve results to meet their commitment to return value for the investment. These emotions are useful in that they can inspire an organization into action. Therefore, developing detailed commissioning and startup plans is a useful application of the nervous energy.

Enabling operators to be familiar with the equipment before they need to meet production rates pays dividends in confidence and performance.

Commissioning serves a variety of purposes, depending on the organization and the type of project. The primary benefits that come to the minds of experienced managers are risk mitigation and ramp-up. An effective, detailed commissioning plan will align these functions and engage operations very early in the startup process and in more depth than with traditional project transitions.

For example, a commissioning plan for the serial startup of systems as small as a tank and pump could begin shortly after completion. This allows for tuning of controls as well as flow and pressure assessment by operations personnel.

This example highlights an easily overlooked benefit of commissioning: the planning process. This is a highly effective tool for employee engagement, and implementing the plans offers operators valuable hands-on training that cannot be matched with weeks of classroom training or vendor presentations.

Since control strategy is often determined by a vendor or a third party, these commissioning runs also enable the operations team to evaluate and modify control strategies with minimal risk. Operators should also be afforded the opportunity to run a process near boundary conditions, which instills confidence in equipment capabilities and the control limitations to protect the personnel and the process. Combined, these benefits accrue a deep sense of buy-in from operations and significantly reduce startup frustrations.

Obtaining funding to do commissioning effectively is a frequent challenge often due to a lack of understanding of what commissioning really encompasses. Commissioning, at a minimum, encompasses the following aspects:

1. Construction quality control—Is it complete?

2. Component checkout—Is it correct?

3. System commissioning—Does it function?


Typical project close-out activities for each discipline, such as construction quality control or instrumentation checkout, should supplement—but not be used as a substitute for—commissioning. The motives of the project staff pushing to close out the project are not malicious; however, their objective is to finish the project, demobilize, and move on to their next project. Alignment between project staff and operations is best achieved by engaging operations as early as possible and to whatever degree that the parties are competent. The objective for operations is also to finish the project, with the added caveat that all elements of the project work as designed.

Identifying activities that can be performed concurrently minimizes the impact of commissioning to the project schedule. For instance, instrumentation checkout can be performed on a completed system, while the next system is being wired, and a third system is being installed. This approach requires milestones and completion dates to be defined by systems rather than locations, which can be difficult to embrace. Performing checkout and running systems as early as practical will minimize the number of unknown variables for operations when starting a large-scale project.

Mill leadership needs to recognize commissioning as an unavoidable expense. They likely face only two options: pay a defined price at startup, or pay some obscure—and likely exorbitant—price due to reduced operational performance until an opportunity arises to make corrections. On medium and large projects, commissioning activities become a tempting line item for project managers to reduce or eliminate. In-house commissioning is an attractive and cost-effective approach for small projects, but technical depth and resource availability becomes a challenge as scope grows.

If a facility lacks engineering staff or technical depth in operations, a third party can assist with planning for commissioning and startup—but beware of farming out commissioning to a “turnkey” service. Keep in mind that hands-on training and ownership of the new process are two of the biggest benefits to the operation in starting up effectively.

Organizations that recognize the value of commissioning will vehemently defend its necessity. Commissioning teams will find deficiencies that prevent significant damage at startup, but members must develop thick skins for the inevitable tension as project staff are wrapping up their efforts and management is pressing for project results. Managers must demonstrate commitment to the process and patience with the team, allowing them to follow the plan.

The alternative is often a seemingly endless stream of downtime events or weeks of running below optimum. It is not uncommon for commissioning runs to uncover issues that may be everything from flawed control strategies, to leaks or design deficiencies, to tools or trash being left inside of lines, vessels, and equipment. Any of these situations are much more easily addressed prior to startup—and preferably before the project staff has demobilized.

Project managers have mechanisms for identifying and mitigating risks for project execution, and a well-executed commissioning plan is the most effective mitigation tool for operations. Transitioning from project to startup, and ensuring closure of findings, requires individual and organizational discipline, especially as pressure to perform mounts. Enabling operators to be familiar with the equipment before they need to meet production rates will not only pay dividends in confidence and performance, but also provide a sense of ownership that cannot be accomplished by simply tossing them the keys.