Imagine if an internationally renowned athletic apparel company didn’t bother to prepare, verify or test its products before putting them in the hands of the world’s greatest athletes. Consumers and athletes alike would be surprised — maybe even feel betrayed — to find that the reliability of the products was not tested before going to market.

Turning over a product in this way would almost certainly result in a loss of trust and confidence in the brand’s products. But the reality is that these companies do spend time and capital to test and verify their products. They do so because they understand the value of the investment and the damage poor performance and unhappy customers brings to profits.

For many industries, however, it can be common to underestimate the value of performing such a process for large projects, such as a newly constructed plant or facility. The startup and commissioning process offers organizations an opportunity to see that all systems and components of the facility are designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained according to their operational requirements.

Incorporating this practice into a project can help avoid costly assumptions and allow for continued, high-quality service for a wide variety of industries.

The Value of Commissioning

Taking a facility from concept through substantial completion to commercial operation is an exciting step for any project team. To maximize efficiency from the beginning, facility managers must be able to run their facilities at the highest possible performance from day one. But achieving a fully functioning building or process startup is no easy task, requiring an upfront investment of resources — financial and otherwise. Owners often focus on keeping capital costs low, and rightfully so. Without a proper commissioning process building owners can spend more on energy, operators time, early replacement of equipment or cost of goods sold than they would on commissioning — a fact that is commonly overlooked. Some of the benefits realized from commissioning include verifying equipment is running efficiently, streamlining the construction schedule through task coordination, preventing overutilization of equipment by adjusting set points and preventing potential future issues by testing all modes of operation. These benefits present real value in the investment.

A financial cash flow analysis will show a 10% overrun on capital ends up costing almost half of what a 1% loss in efficiency will cost in 10 years. Simply put, without effective building and equipment startups, organizations are potentially leaving a lot of money on the table.

To avoid this, organizations should think with the end in mind and plan early for the transition from construction staff to sustaining staff. Regardless of the industry or type of facility, utilizing a startup and commissioning process can reduce ongoing operational costs, shorten an organization’s time to production or lower the number of equipment failures.

Such a process can positively impact project schedules by pulling in the construction team earlier. If commissioning and startup are planned early, issues can be mitigated during design and construction rather than discovering them during functional testing.

Avoiding schedule slippage requires that the team identify all commissioning and startup tasks on the critical path. Doing so allows general contractors and subcontractors to hit important schedule milestones and provides a more realistic date for project completion.

Key Components of Successful Startup

The value and result of developing a comprehensive and rigorous commissioning and startup process covers both the human and the equipment variables of a project. Here are six critical aspects to consider:

  1. Define success criteria and goals — First and foremost, set clear objectives. How will this project move from the construction team to the sustaining team? What are the organization’s parameters for building acceptance?
  2. Startup risk assessment — Perform a thorough startup risk assessment and establish key focus areas. What utilities are needed for startup of the process equipment? Do the original equipment manufacturers need the utilities early to start their construction and prestartup activities? Are all activities accounted for in the schedule?
  3. Startup strategy development — Develop a detailed startup strategy that fits the project goals. Strategy should coordinate design engineers and maintenance and operation staff with construction and startup team to avoid unnecessary changes further on in the process.
  4. Early learning plan — Identify subject matter experts who can help implement an ongoing commissioning process; involve them early in the project to build mastery and ownership. Who will own the equipment after startup and turnover?
  5. Training plan — Establish a training plan that transfers information from subject matter experts to the operators who run the equipment. Getting the operators involved with startup and commissioning is an effective way for them to learn how the systems work. Involving them early during startup planning will help them take ownership of the equipment at turnover. This will reduce time from mechanically complete to turnover.
  6. Problem-solving integration — Implement an effective troubleshooting and problem-solving plan during startup. By focusing on testing the equipment early during startup, you speed integration testing at the end of the job and reduce punch list items.

The startup and commissioning process offers organizations a way to get a facility that is designed, installed and tested to operate as intended. Performing these steps near the end of a project provides real value — value that is realized in the faster delivery of a reliable, effective facility. Doing so means that organizations see a favorable the return on the investment of the project and can continue to provide the high-quality service their customers expect.

 

The startup and commissioning process can be a complicated one. Finding an experienced partner can bring more value to complex projects.

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by
David Meyers, AIA, PMP, CxA, LEED AP, is the national commissioning director at Burns & McDonnell and is the American Institute of Architects representative for Commissioning. With more than 20 years of experience, he has been responsible for the commissioning of construction costing more than $16 billion and of existing building space covering more than 200 million square feet. David presents at conferences around the country, exploring industry trends and sharing innovative approaches to commissioning.