Startup and Commissioning: It’s Risky Business

Automation projects, by their very nature, have risks. Everyone has a war story or two about a project that went off the rails, blew the budget, blew the schedule, or didn’t do what it was intended to do. The startup and commissioning part of the project, doubly so. Because automation startup and commissioning is risky business.

Defining a successful project is not difficult:

  • Did it deliver the intended results like safety improvements and product quality improvements?
  • Did it help bring new products to market, improve performance such as throughput, reliability or quality, and produce the savings or return on investment (ROI) as intended?
  • Was it executed well with no injuries, accidents or environmental issues?
  • Was it implemented on time and on budget?

Lean Workforce and Startup Risks

The startup and commissioning phases of automation projects are increasingly challenging. In the past, many manufacturing facilities had adequate in-house resources to execute capital projects and handle day-to-day operational and maintenance activities. But most facilities have seen their resources reduced over the years, leaving few resources to execute automation projects.

We are continuing to lose tribal knowledge due to this loss of resources, and due to an aging workforce and the sheer number of people who have retired. In fact, it seems pretty apparent that the manufacturing sector is disproportionately experiencing the ramifications of an aging workforce.

Fewer experienced resources and lack of tribal knowledge has led to several specific risks when it comes to automation startup and commissioning projects, such as the loss of effective startup methods. In addition, a much leaner and, in many cases, a shared workforce means tighter startup schedules with the same people having to execute operations, maintenance, and now startup and commissioning duties all in parallel.

As many companies adapt to this lack of in-house resources, they are leveraging more third-party engineering and startup resources, but significant issues still occur when executing an automation startup and commissioning project.

Missed schedules lead to financial losses and higher project costs. Not to mention being career-limiting for site managers, project managers and startup managers.

Environmental health and safety aspects of an automation startup and commissioning project are typically the most dangerous activities a manufacturing facility will ever undertake. The possibility of a negative environmental impact always looms large. Environmental health and safety risks can lead to the potential loss of life, significant financial loss and drops in shareholder value, and the possibility of negative press and even public boycotts.

But beyond those significant, and potentially very public risks, ineffective startup and commissioning activities alone bring their own set of risks. Interruptions in final testing causes schedule delays and cost increases. Incomplete interlock testing may mean significant retesting or discovering problems much later in the process, all of which again delays the schedule and increases the costs. And these delays and retesting lead to even higher costs such as raw material waste, off-spec product and increased labor cost.

And even after the startup is complete, there are risks associated with post-startup issues, including:

  • High failure rates leading to increased downtime
  • Incorrect or incomplete compliance documentation
  • Incorrect or incomplete maintenance documentation
  • Increased production of off-spec product

Common Mistakes

Several mistakes can be made in an automation startup and commissioning project that can lead to these potential risks becoming a reality. Many of these mistakes are all too common, such as:

Poor planning – whether it’s lack of experience, just missing key items, not engaging enough people, not engaging the right people or late engagement of the startup team, poor planning is the number-one culprit in causing risks to become realities.

Not identifying and managing the risks – the risks must be identified and tracked and have both mitigation and contingency plans. This is a fundamental aspect of managing risks and somehow always seems to get minimal attention in automation startup and commissioning projects.

Poor installation, startup and commissioning quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) practices – this is another area that seems to be given little attention when schedules get tighter and overtime gets higher. It all needs to get finished “now.” But taking shortcuts with QA and QC activities only leads to that many more problems found during the actual startup and that much more impact to the schedule and costs.

Plan, Prep and Plan Again

Driving successful results on an automation startup and commissioning project does not have to be difficult, but it does require work. It all starts with early planning, proper preparation and more planning.

It’s important to identify the startup and commissioning resources for the team early on. Include the proper resources in the planning. That means operations, maintenance, contractors, project engineers and project managers. Understand and leverage the team. Everyone has a vested interest in the success of the project, but they all have different points of view and different responsibilities.

The following recommendations also help drive successful results:

  • Develop a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) chart to provide clarity on roles and responsibilities and to minimize or eliminate confusion
  • Establish rigid QA and QC practices – and don’t compromise on them
  • Avoid duplicated effort
  • Ensure early identification of long lead time items
  • Ensure construction sequence mimics startup sequence
  • Get buy-in from all trades on schedule
  • Integrate installation and startup
  • Create a detailed, integrated startup checklist
  • Don’t forget about dependent activities from others
  • Conduct daily status meetings during the outage
  • Provide appropriate supervision to drive accountability

When it comes to field device testing, there is a better way. Here are a few specific points to consider:

  • Early problem detection and resolution is key
  • Checkout should follow construction milestones
  • Prior to startup, three phases of checks will help to drive commissioning completion with minimal issues:
    • Pre-static – mechanical complete – identify issues early in parallel with construction
    • Static – electrical complete – identify wiring issues, verify instruments, valves, motors and confirm wire tags
    • Pre-dynamic – energized state – confirm functionality, check devices, simulate PVs, stroke valves and bump motors
  • Each stage is completed as soon as possible, corresponding to the installation stage
  • Documentation of checks and progress tracking is critical:
    • Loop folders (paper or electronic)
    • Check-sheets
    • Discrepancies communicated

Final Testing and Closeout

By following these recommendations, when it’s time for final commissioning, overall process startup time will be significantly reduced. Each device will be ready to go.

Full dynamic testing is the final startup stage where logic functions are tested to ensure they meet functional requirements. These are typically water trials and are used to check alarming, tune control loops and test logic functions and interlocks.

The figure outlines this information in an easy-to-understand fashion.

At this point, the automation startup and commissioning project is finished and ready to be closed out. When closing out the project, don’t forget to update all the documentation, provide the complete documentation package to operations, schedule some lessons-learned meetings and celebrate the success.

Mitigate Risk for Success

Automation startup and commissioning projects are risky business. Whether it’s safety improvements, product-quality improvements, helping bring new products to market, improving performance or producing savings, it’s simply good business to stay on time, stay on budget and mitigate risk.

Consider the above areas and understand the risks associated with each one prior to starting an automation startup and commissioning project. Taking specific actions to manage those risks is key to avoiding the common mistakes that often lead directly to the risks becoming realities. With proper planning, the right cross-functional team, well-thought-out processes, the right mix of QA/QC practices, and the willingness not to compromise when the schedule gets even tighter, the risks are minimized and a successful automation startup and commissioning project becomes a reality.

Mark McMakin

Mark McMakin

Mark has over 35 years of systems integration experience, specializing in installation and commissioning. He has worked in many industries including Pharmaceutical, Chemical, Pulp & Paper and Power. He has held numerous positions within MAVERICK including Construction Manager, Commissioning Manager and Project Manager, where his primary focus has been to assist his customers in finding the right solution and maximizing resources to assure projects start on time and under budget.

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Mark McMakin

Mark McMakin is a
Field Services Manager with MAVERICK Technologies.

John Clemons

John Clemons is a Senior Consultant with Rockwell Automation and MAVERICK Technologies.


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