My years as a Graduate Engineer happened to coincide with the construction of large coal handling process plants throughout the Hunter Valley Region of New South Wales.  Many of these plants are still in operation today. 

Throughout this time tales of commissioning mishaps, such as plants shaking uncontrollably during their first load test, were commonplace.  Fortunately, most if not all of these tales were untrue. 

However, I understood that in a time when most engineering calculations were still by hand the commissioning of complex infrastructure presented significant engineering challenges.

Project commissioning is the process of assuring that all systems and components of a building or industrial plant are designed, installed, tested, operated, and maintained according to the project operational requirements

The commissioning of mining infrastructure projects, particularly when those projects are medium to large and include complex multi-discipline engineering solutions, are always challenging in terms of risk, affecting cost, timing and quality. 

It’s important for project teams and their sponsors to consider commissioning from project initiation and to develop an effective commissioning plan during project execution. 

 This article describes the commissioning process and outlines common pitfalls, strategies to reduce the likelihood of theses pitfalls, and contingency planning.

The Initial Engineering Commissioning Planning Meeting

Typically, the initial commissioning planning meeting takes place when the execution phase is around 80% complete.  However, as the definition of project commissioning includes design and installation, a successful commissioning process must start with the project itself. 

It may be helpful to consider each project phase. Concept, prefeasibility and feasibility should include a commissioning process focussed on design and future installation.  In fact, every revision of the project management plan will affect the project, for example:

  • Does your risk management address each stage of equipment life (design, installation, operation, decommissioning and disposal) to reduce the likelihood of the equipment not being fit for purpose?
  • Does your procurement plan specify assembly and factory acceptance testing for all equipment, to ensure the equipment meets specifications and reduce the likelihood of equipment failure on site?
  • Does your procurement plan identify hydrostatic testing for a pipeline, to suit the actual pipeline pressure ratings, to reduce the chance of pipeline leakage during commissioning?

The initial commissioning planning meeting will consider a staged approach to commissioning.  Most large companies, such as Glencore, BHP and Rio Tinto, have developed guidelines, standards and checklists to direct the commissioning process. 

If this level of documentation is not available templates are available on-line, for example; the Department of Defence, University of Wollongong and ANSTO.  However, anyone planning to use these documents should ensure they apply to the industry, location and technology of their particular project. 

Commissioning teams should review lessons learned from previous projects, and hold risk workshops with key stakeholders and subject matter experts. 

The Engineering Commissioning Process

Table 1 below describes a typical staged approach used for a medium to large mining infrastructure commissioning process. 

Part of any handover pack can include a signed certificate for each stage.  Along with each certificate, a punch list will be included. 

The classification of required punch-list action items will include critical or not critical items, where the final issue of the certificate requires the completion, checking, and signing-off of all critical items.

Table 1 – Typical staged approach to commissioning process

Process I.D.


Typical Activities


Constructed to design including factory acceptance

Check equipment / infrastructure is built to design and all specifications comply to law, and site standards; check relevant documentation is provided and approved; ensure safety plan and risk register actions signed off



Complete Input / Output (I/O) checks to the Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA); check equipment and piping are clear of containments; check lubrication; confirm the system is ready for energy sources, with protection systems in place


Direction testing

Energise with power to direction test equipment; stroke control valves; calibrate instruments; record protection settings


No Load / Dry Commissioning

Check functional requirements including all interlocks; check warning devices and sequences; run individual equipment under no-load; check instrument operation


Load / Wet Commissioning

Check site wide systems are fully functional;  confirm operations technicians trained and able to run commissioning; check as-built documents complete; confirm Operations and Maintenance Manuals available in draft form


Project Completion

Run up system and hold for an agreed duration; confirm system operating reliably; confirm performance guarantees met; notify insurer of handover

While the project team will typically undertake process stages C0, C1 and C2, a Commissioning Manager may be required to carry out items C3, C4 and C5. 

While the Commissioning Manager will be part of the project team, working with or for the Project Manager, there are good reasons to include the Commissioning Manager role.  These include:

  1. The volume of work required to manage the commissioning process
  2. The risks to personnel and equipment during commissioning
  3. The cost of lost production due to commissioning over-runs.

The commissioning plan may need to include a resource plan.  One example of this is a pipeline project. 

A risk-based approach may require witnesses at critical pipeline locations, especially when the pipe route passes through environmentally sensitive areas where it is critical to identify and contain leakage as quickly as possible.  In this case, each witness may require a hand held radio, and a dedicated channel set aside for the commissioning process.

Closing Remarks

A systematic well-documented commissioning process is necessary for any medium to large multi-disciplinary projects, including infrastructure projects in the mining industry.  Engenium has experienced engineering staff and subject matter experts able to assist during commissioning as managers or commissioning engineers.


Peter Wells

Principal Engineer, NSW – Engenium Pty Ltd.