July 2017

Trends and Resources

Business Trends: Innovative commissioning and startup technologies for industrial projects

The performance of capital project facility commissioning, startup and initial operations often falls short of expectations, and the opportunity for innovative commissioning and startup technologies has yet to be discussed extensively.

Choi, J. O., University of Nevada; O'Connor, J. T., University of Texas; Winkler, M., Delta Air Lines

The performance of capital project facility commissioning, startup and initial operations often falls short of expectations, and the opportunity for innovative commissioning and startup technologies has yet to be discussed extensively. The industry needs to better understand and apply new technologies to help ensure success in facility commissioning, startup and initial operational performance.

Commissioning pertains to the testing of a plant’s systems prior to initial operations.1,2 These activities are primarily executed by the client/owner, with the contractor transferring control either at the end of construction or during precommissioning.3 At the conclusion of commissioning, the facility is given a “ready for startup” certification, and initial operations are allowed to begin.3

Utilizing a research team’s collective expertise contributions, the authoring researchers identified technologies that can help ensure a more effective and successful commissioning and startup (CSU) of capital facilities.

To better understand these emerging technologies, the researchers posed three questions:

  • What innovative CSU technologies drive CSU success?
  • When should these technologies be implemented?
  • How can these technologies enhance CSU planning and execution?

Research methodology

The 21-member team (with a total of 453 yr of experience and involvement in 572 CSU projects in total), consisted of experts from the construction industry and the University of Texas at Austin.

The team first identified and categorized technologies to enhance CSU performance. Details on these technologies were sourced from literature review and information obtained from subject matter experts (SMEs). The involvement of SMEs was critical for the research, given that few studies have examined technologies related to CSU in industrial plants.

Upon further examination and discussion by the team, a list of five innovative commissioning technologies (ICTs) was identified:

  1. Smart piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs)
  2. Building information modeling (BIM)/3D design models
  3. Asset data management and wireless instrumentation
  4. Simulation-based virtual commissioning and operator training
  5. Completion management systems.

Each of the five technologies was assigned to one research team member possessing the experience to help draft and detail characterizations for the technology. Each innovative commissioning technology was fully detailed by identifying the technology objectives, functionality, benefit to CSU, project phase implemented and implementation challenges/recommendations. As a final step, implementation of these technologies was mapped across typical project phases to identify the points at which these technologies should be applied in a project.

Innovative CSU technologies (ICTs)

Fig. 1. Timing of application of ICTs.
Fig. 1. Timing of application of ICTs.

Through an in-depth discussion, the authors and research team concluded that the five identified ICTs may help facilitate CSU information management and improve the CSU team’s effectiveness. In particular, the ICTs will help the CSU team manage system complexity more effectively, improve system organization and scheduling, prevent component functionality problems, reduce errors through data automation, and train staff more effectually and efficiently.

Many of the benefits from this technology application are directly related to the timing of the application. To achieve maximum benefit from the application of ICTs, it is important that these technologies are administered at the appropriate time. Fig. 1 illustrates the recommended timing of application for each of the identified technologies. The timing is mapped across the project phases established in the study’s early stages. The ICTs are organized by timing of initiation.

BIM and asset data management have the benefit of being able to be initiated early in the project, and to continue offering valuable assistance into initial operations. As Fig. 1 shows, all ICTs are spread across at least two project phases. Their use and proper implementation can assist in improving CSU performance.

Smart piping and instrumentation diagrams

Smart P&IDs have the main feature of automated analysis and manipulation of CSU systems, as well as the associated attributes of piping and instrumentation systems. These features can support CSU teams in CSU planning and execution. Prior to and during the CSU process, the technology provides an overview of the P&ID functionality at the facility as a whole in a single shared database, and helps personnel better understand P&ID systems and their integrated relationships.

The technology helps CSU personnel thoroughly and accurately generate, modify, manage and improve P&IDs through 2D and 3D CAD modeling. Users can tag and annotate system components with applicable elements. For coordinated access by CSU personnel, these data can be merged with existing BIM data or consolidated into a single database.

Through the smart P&ID technology, CSU personnel can easily access both complete system components and elements during planning and CSU phases. With this feature, from an early stage, the technology can support CSU personnel for enhanced understanding of CSU systems, subsystems and components, as well as their related interactions, integrations and relationships. The technology helps the CSU personnel in many other ways. It ensures accurate information during evolving designs and deviations in the field, allows for a systemization/isolation of the model and establishment of a controls model to examine systems in a standalone environment, and reduces the CSU timeline by providing accurate as-built and in-field conditions.

The optimal initiation timing of the smart P&ID application is during early front-end engineering design (FEED) and into detailed design, with necessary updates through construction, checkout and commissioning. Before CSU, smart P&ID data is integrated with existing data, like BIM data, and imported to the central database. Later, the facility operators can utilize the smart P&ID data during operations.

The project team, including the CSU team, should ensure that the smart P&ID data is accurate and current, from FEED through detailed design to as-builts. To ensure that the data has been transferred to the CSU and central database properly, integration of cross-platforms may be required. In addition, it is important to set up system/subsystem identification coding.

BIM/3D design models

BIM/3D design models provide numerous features that can support CSU. These features include, but are not limited to, spatial models, component system membership, operations functions, maintenance functions, component functionality characteristics and asset data management, all in a uniform, digital platform.

During the lifecycle of the project, the BIM models provide accurate, complete and connected digital information. The users can access the information and models through laptops, smartphones and tablet personal computers, as well as online and cloud-based databases. BIM provides 3D models as well as standardized and electronic checklists, punchlists, operations data and an analytical reporting feature. The technology also allows equipment and system tagging through bar codes or identification, which is useful for looking up related information and documentation in the field.

The technology supports the following direct CSU functions:

  1. Automated and accessible test reports and punchlists
  2. Lists of procedures and protocols
  3. Access to equipment and systems data sheets, manuals and warranties
  4. Reporting capabilities and quality documentation
  5. Issues and conflict resolutions
  6. Systems completion processes.

The technology also supports the project team in tracking safety, quality and commissioning processes. Specifically, these advantages are achieved by minimizing error-prone procedures, providing coordinated and consistent links to information and documentation, and promoting collaboration among the interconnected teams and systems that are critical to CSU operations. In-field mobility, whether disconnected or via web browser, is significantly improved in the decision-making process in terms of speed and accuracy. During the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) phase, with the technology application, the handover process to CSU can be greatly improved and made more efficient by connecting models and documents into a single digital asset.

Furthermore, when BIM models are well-built and maintained prior to CSU through EPC, the operators can initiate facility operations faster while reducing costs and minimizing delays. Subsequently, the technology can support the owner in facility operations and maintenance (O&M) by associating useful deliverables (e.g., O&M manuals, maintenance schedules), speedy data transfer and lower costs.

It is appropriate that the application of technology be initiated in FEED and continued throughout the project, into the initial operations phases of the facility. As described previously, early smart P&ID data can be used to help form the data foundation upon which the BIM model is further developed. For effective use of BIM technology, frequent participation and accurate input from the design and construction team, vendors and suppliers are critical prior to the commencement of CSU. The input data should be accurate and up-to-date.

Asset data management and wireless instrumentation

Asset data management and wireless instrumentation technology are gaining greater prominence as manufacturing processes, employee safety, energy and environmental control/monitoring “points” are growing in number and becoming increasingly wireless.

With this technology, CSU personnel can obtain more available and useful device performance data, and uncover issues or concerns earlier and more effectively with in-field devices and associated conditions, thereby helping reduce overall commissioned costs. Furthermore, through the wireless method, personnel can easily include additional monitoring points.

This technology enables CSU personnel to better manage instrumentation/control devices, because staff can easily create or update the asset database. The technology includes a feature enabling automatic association/updating of user-defined parameters for assets and restoration of asset data to previous points in time. Through configurable data views, CSU personnel can organize, filter and group information to improve decision-making for asset management and operations.

Personnel can also track and view asset change history at parameter and device levels. Significant benefits regarding more efficient and reliable CSU performance can be achieved with the technology’s self-calibrating and auto-reporting of device/system status and performance data. Additional opportunity exists to further reduce CSU duration with wireless device diagnostics pass-throughs by eliminating many problems through troubleshooting.

Another key benefit from asset data management and wireless instrumentation technology is the safer and more efficient execution of CSU and operations, as the technology allows easy access to assets in real time through configurable devices. Process and diagnostics automation eliminates numerous requirements for human-operator interaction. An SME in asset data management and wireless instrumentation technology provided real implementation evidence that showed an approximate 50% reduction in field device configuration and commissioning, and a 30% reduction in facility startup.

Wireless instrumentation technology also brings significant benefits to CSU schedules and costs. The technology takes 40%–60% less time for installation compared with hard-wired monitoring points, as there are no requirements for converting hardwired-conduit devices to wireless monitoring devices. Auto-meshing of the devices to the wireless gateways allows personnel to easily start up wireless measurement points.

In addition, the wireless technology decreases the volume of instrumentation drawings, along with material and labor costs. In particular, this technology (complete with device database manager and diagnostics) is useful for modular projects, as personnel in the modular yards can quickly establish device alerts and ship modules with greater levels of commissioning completion.

To obtain the maximum potential of asset data management and wireless instrumentation technology, including faster and more effective results, the implementation of the technology should be planned during the detailed design phase; new commissioning, startup and maintenance practices should be developed; and new skill sets and/or a pool of new SMEs may be required.

Simulation-based virtual commissioning and operator training

Simulation-based virtual commissioning and operator training technology supports commissioning and operator training for the main distributed control system (DCS), programmable logic controllers (PLC) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems through virtual execution and simulation. The technology helps personnel test plant control systems in lifelike environments through extensive engineering checkout and virtual commissioning of equipment, machines and processes.

The technology also allows personnel to virtually test PLC and robot programs in preparation for implementation, and to assist in ascertaining the time needed for commissioning. In addition, a virtual model of the actual site is created to test the interface between the PLC and the DCS. One of the main benefits is the provision of a virtual, hands-on experience for the training operator prior to CSU and initial operations. Furthermore, the technology allows detailed tests by design engineers with a 3D model prior to implementation.

The benefits of this technology are many:

  • Shortened startup duration and removal of potential conflicts, which lead to overall cost savings. The implementation of the technology requires a small investment compared to the overall CSU budget; however, outstanding overall cost savings are expected.
  • Reduced reengineering efforts—achieved by identifying conflict prior to construction, along with reduced downtime and risk during integration through technology implementation—assist operators to achieve an earlier and more thorough understanding of facilities and systems. Design engineers can also test their systems prior to implementation.
  • Some CSU times can be reduced by approximately 20%–50% with the shortened training program, less time away from the facility and quicker startup. Furthermore, by ensuring high availability from initial startup, the technology lessens the use of resources, minimizes wear of the plant’s lifespan during CSU and maximizes production profit.
  • The technology eliminates costly delays in CSU through complete and accurate simulation of the control systems, since personnel can make modifications to control logic prior to commissioning. They can also test and validate the human-machine interface (HMI) of the operating systems prior to startup.
  • The technology allows personnel to test the DCS and PLC prior to implementation, and refine the DCS library of function blocks early.
  • The technology creates a standalone and safe simulation environment for systems commissioning feedback. This feature can train future operators to visualize the pseudo-real-time equipment, operations procedures and fault management.
  • The technology, developed with the experience of field operators and engineers, provides a realistic, hands-on field experience.
  • When training using real, in-use systems and equipment is not available or appropriate, the technology reduces the need for training and the risk of failure.

The timing for planning and execution is critical for successful implementation. Planning for virtual commissioning and operator training should be carried out at the beginning of the detailed design phase. Also, implementation of training simulation should be completed during the construction phase. When determining on the correct strategic approaches to simulation, personnel should conduct a thorough internal data structure analysis, which is critical for developing accurate simulation models for successful implementation.

Completion management systems

A main function of a completion management system (CMS) is that it can track CSU systems and equipment progress and/or status for enhanced CSU performance. In addition to tracking systems and equipment progress, the technology helps personnel understand the status and progress of CSU system completion. It does this by providing equipment and system testing records and product data (e.g., initial run data and punchlist items) automatically.

The technology supports mobile access features through tablet and mobile PCs, which helps personnel manage and maintain equipment or system records throughout the lifecycle of the project. Personnel can track the CSU system and equipment progress/status by percentage completed per system (system statistics), physical progress or punchlist items progress. Through the use of barcodes and field-level entry, personnel can obtain real-time data in the field (i.e., product data, punchlists, startup tests or safety documentation) with the technology.

For optimal performance, the authors recommended building off the CMS with existing smart P&IDs or redlines, linking to the asset management database, and allowing easy access in terms of frequency and speed (in real time). In addition, the CMS can be consolidated with BIM and 3D design models.

Personnel can collect field data through mobile technologies, and combine or update data on all systems in a single database through cloud-based modules. The technology supports the establishment of consistent documents and forms across all project systems, which allows personnel to enter data only once and update the system in real time. It also provides manageable, reliable and consistent documentation, which allows for error reduction. Furthermore, the technology reduces startup and handover efforts, and improves efficiencies.

Personnel should plan to use the technology during detailed design and implement it in the construction phase through CSU completion. System documents should be uploaded during installation and testing periods, and the system should be updated through commissioning. However, if the system is not fully automated at the beginning, then uploading the data and proper assignment to system components may require manual and labor-intensive efforts.


To better understand the emerging technologies needed to ensure a more effective and successful CSU of capital facilities, the researchers identified innovative technologies that can enhance CSU performance.

The timing of application for each of the identified technologies can be mapped across the project phases established in the early stages of the study. Proper timing of the application of these technologies is crucial in realizing the full benefits of the technologies. More findings with CSU case studies are available in literature.4,5,6,7 HP


This research was sponsored by the Construction Industry Institute via Research Team 312: Best Practices for Commissioning and Startup. The authors wish to thank the research team and the external validation committee for their support.

Literature cited

  1. Construction Industry Institute (CII), Planning Construction Activity to Support the Startup Process, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, 1990.
  2. CII, Planning for Startup, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, 1998.
  3. American Petroleum Institute (API), Facilities Systems Completion Planning and Execution, 1st Ed., 2013.
  4. CII, Achieving Success in the Commissioning and Startup of Capital Projects, Austin, Texas, 2015a.
  5. CII, Critical Success Factors for Project Commissioning and Startup, Austin, Texas, 2015.
  6. O’Connor, J. T., J. O. Choi and M. Winkler, “Identification and implementation of critical success factors in commissioning and start-up of capital projects,” University of Texas—Austin, Texas Scholar Works, Austin, Texas, 2015.
  7. O’Connor, J. T., J. O. Choi and M. Winkler, “Critical success factors for commissioning and start-up of capital projects,” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Vol. 142, Iss. 11, 2016.

The Authors

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