Effective Instrument Commissioning for Seamless Project Startups

Finishing a major automation project on time and on budget depends on putting the best digital tools in the hands of highly skilled people.

Over the last several decades, process instrumentation has become far more accurate and versatile, but can be more complex to configure. As a case in point, consider a basic process pressure measurement:

  • A mechanical gauge had a range, a class, and perhaps an accessory;
  • Early electronic transmitters (1970s) had half-a-dozen settings; and
  • Later electronic transmitters (1990s) added more internal processing, which meant more settings.

Today’s transmitters are extremely powerful with internal electronics to process the basic reading, deliver additional variables, perform internal diagnostics, monitor other process conditions, self-calibrate, retain historical performance data, monitor power quality, and more. Most recently, the growth of IIoT capabilities adds even more sophistication.

As an example, an Endress+Hauser Proline Coriolis flowmeter can detect a wide variety of process conditions beyond the normal set of variables. Every type of transmitter can’t do every function, but a full configuration can often require verification of 100 or more settings.

Multiply this by the hundreds and potentially thousands of instruments and smart devices involved in a process unit upgrade, new process unit, or a greenfield facility, and it becomes clear why producer companies doing such projects often hire a primary system provider (SP). It also explains why SPs hire integration specialist and partner with instrumentation technicians to do advanced commissioning. With the right digital tools, it is much easier and faster to do this detailed work accurately and efficiently.

Stages of a project
A large-scale project typically consists of three major sections: Plant design and engineering; installation and commissioning; and operations and maintenance.

It’s the middle where problems can develop because the design work must be realized in an actual installation and made to operate correctly so the plant can start up on time. The risk is huge since a plant that’s not running when it should be is piling up extra costs and not generating income.

The SP is usually responsible for the automation and instrumentation parts of the project. Its function, in broad terms, is to oversee the actual building contractors while creating the software programs and networks to support process automation. This includes the PLC, DCS, as well as the various networks, HMIs, field device I/O, instrumentation, loops, and so forth. There are typically multiple subcontractors performing all these tasks and the SP has to keep everything moving and coordinated.

There is also the need to keep everything documented, as virtually every act, no matter how trivial, from tightening bolts on a pipe flange to verifying a control loop, must be specified and recorded. Yet, even this far into the 21st century, for many SPs and subcontractors, these are still manual procedures recorded on paper forms and entered in some management system after the fact. Fortunately, there are now digital tools to meet this challenge.

Step-by-step process
To start the project off on the right foot, all the information related to the project must be consolidated and transferred to a digital commissioning management platform, such as Netilion. This includes all the device lists, data sheets, work instructions, drawings, and other documents supporting the scope of work. This management platform serves both the site commissioning managers and the individual technicians.

For the manager, it is the mechanism used to maintain real-time tracking of overall progress and completed phases. For the technicians, it is the primary and authoritative guide for work processes and execution details. Since it is digital, it is also dynamic. If a change is handed down by the SP, for example the range on PT-143 needs to be changed from 0-100 PSI to 0-130 PSI, the instruction can be changed instantly if the task has not yet been done, or it can instruct the technician to go back and make the revision. Since the information is updated constantly, there is effectively no lag time.

Work done in the field is where training and skill are critical. It’s one thing to have a work order to commission a flowmeter, but doing it quickly, efficiently, and intelligently is another. A technician must interpret the instructions and determine how to set many unspecified parameters based on the function of the instrument in the larger process context. Most of the main parameters are spelled out in the work order, but others may not be, and the technician must determine which must be specifically configured versus what can be left in the default setting.

Typical deliverables
The scope of the instrumentation commissioning team’s responsibilities varies by project requirements. When a project is comprehensive, the team will begin during the planning phase, helping set commissioning strategy and scheduling. This can extend into final equipment selection based on the piping and instrumentation diagrams and process information. Throughout this phase, the team will gather loop sheets, motor schematics, spec sheets, checklists, and move them all into the digital management platform.

Once on site, the commissioning technicians must verify the work done by the piping and electrical contractors. Inspection confirms that the right device has been installed, it matches specifications, and has been connected correctly before powering-up the device.

Once verified, the actual configuration takes place. Based on the type of device, configuration can involve a variety of actions, such as:

  • Bump motors to verify rotation;
  • Run valves through their full stroke;
  • Check instrument response to simulated process variables;
  • Confirm correct scaling at the HMI;
  • Confirm VFD settings; and
  • Make final adjustments to configurations.

It is also necessary to ensure each device functions properly in its process context:

  • Verify interlocks;
  • Testing for batch phase, sequence, and logic;
  • Monitor water or other runs; and
  • Complete commissioning.

Now the unit is ready for startup and final hand-over. At this point, the importance of the digital management platform, like Netilion, becomes especially clear. Delivering documentation with the full detailed history of the project is an easy task since everything has been gathered and kept in a consistent format, ready to transfer to the SP’s and client’s servers.

It’s critical for companies to understand that commissioning services are too critical to accept the default choice without exploring other options. With the right choice, it is possible to have a successful project with all critical deliverables provided, including:

  • Real-time visibility and insights into work progress, obstacles, and completion;
  • Efficient project setup with automatic data sheets, tag lists, and templates for effective work planning;
  • Collaborative and dynamic digital guides for work process execution; and
  • Intuitive and easy-to-use digital management platform for all technicians and supervisors.
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