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Becoming a Commissioning Expert

What is Commissioning?

Commissioning is a Process by which an equipment, facility, or plant (which is installed, or is complete or near completion) is tested to verify if it functions according to its design objectives or specifications. Commissioning is the process that leads to the safe operation of a specific piece of equipment, facility or plant and experts within the commissioning field can follow on to develop a career in an operational environment or project management. 

Commissioning expertise is gained from the basic skills acquired in the assembly and installation process within a specific disciplined area, such as Electrical, Instrumentation, Automation, Control, Telecoms or Mechanical disciplines in the technical hands on stage of your career development. No ones undertakes training to be an expert in the field of commissioning, this is an art and skill learnt from hands on experience gained whilst building and placing real equipment, facilities or plant into operation, trouble shooting, repairing, rebuilding and developing the best practices, processes learnt, developing the procedures to explain how to place something into service safety and cost effectively.

Commissioning involves the breaking down of elements starting with pieces, pipes, cables, fittings valves etc., these individually make up what we call “sub-systems” defined normally by discipline, such as electrical, instrument, mechanical etc. The sub-systems collectively make up the systems required to make a specific type of process function, from a power plant to a refinery to an offshore production facility whereby tens of thousands of components function simultaneously under a controlled safe operating environment.

I want to become a Commissioning expert!

I started in the Oil and Gas industry with a traditional trade apprenticeship in welding and fabrication mechanical engineering, coming from an oil and gas town where most of the Oil and Gas action started in the early sixties, when we Brits knew nothing about oil and gas under the sea, now over 50 years on operating in some of the harshest environments in the industry our pioneering technology, regulatory framework and continual development is leading projects around the world (Watch Video Developing a World Class Oil & Gas Supply Chain).  So as I was saying,  this was the general way to go for a 16-year-old school leaver seeking a practical career in the industry with an Oil and Gas apprenticeship at the heart of the local community. Trade apprenticeship’s started in the UK after the second world war and although they were effectively wiped out as a government sponsored form of training in the late 80’s they have made a welcome comeback over recent years and have played an important turning point for development of competency based technical skill training specifically in the renewable energy sector, which even today is a relatively new technology development so creating transferable re-skilling from a declining Oil and Gas workforce has been a welcome transition supported by vocational training around apprenticeship type courses. Today traditional apprenticeships unfortunately are less common outside the UK, Canada and USA whereby accreditation to a discipline is gained within a university environment, whereby the learner will qualify with an engineering degree to practice their chosen discipline predominately in a class room theoretical learning environment. 

Like any form of training the ability to do, touch, feel and experience is invaluable, I give credit for my fortunate working career and my ability to have had that hands on experience during my learning years, having the ability to work side by side with professional mentors in a day-to-day working environment obtaining the hands on experience, skills and competence effectively ready for work “Anywhere” It kind of gave me that kick-start that would normally takes a qualified engineering graduate 4 to 5 years to gain after leaving university, “that’s if you can get a job!”. I don’t want to knock the current system as that’s where we are generally in industry today, the majority of qualified engineering graduates do face a challenge in the following respect, many employers will request a minimum 5 years of work experience in a specific discipline environment before giving the opportunity of employment, “hello” how do I get that when you have just rolled out into the real world with my bachelors degree? The larger national and international players run their annual graduate programs however we are talking about a lucky few places that in reality don’t make a dent in  tens of thousands of qualified graduate engineers falling out of universities annually.

Unfortunately we live in a world where the need for technical hands on skills will always out way the need of leadership and direction, I have undertaken a few studies over recent years specifically in developing countries and developed a “Scale of Weights” to demonstrate where we should be focusing and investing our learner development to achieve consistency within a competent work force:

See my “Scale of Weight Competency Development Matrix”; download it here: Karl-Farrow-Scale-of-Weights-Competency-Training-Benefits

Some of the traditional challenges

The newly qualified engineer has to seek a role within an organisation that is willing to invest time into him or her and give you that hands on environment to develop, best route here, ironically is not what you know but who you know, friends of friends family etc are the best route to get that break to use that “useful knowledge you have absorbed” in your university time. I say absorbed because the useful knowledge will account for less than 25% of what you will apply within your hands on day-to-day working environment. Again I don’t want to come across as knocking the system here but engineering curriculum does not run concurrent with the revolving technological changes and practices in the industry, In the 80’s I was learning about “Gas Brazing” (whats that you ask? exactly my point!) when in the practical world of my apprenticeship (real world) I was learning to MIG and TIG weld, latest technologies in plasma cutting etc. I learnt more in 1 hour pulling a mechanical pump apart, cleaning it, fixing it and putting it back together than I did spending a week in a class talking about how the pump worked. The things you don’t get to experience in the talking about fixing that pump in a nice warm classroom is, working in an outside environment, offshore on a North Sea oil rig in January, its 2 degree C, 30 mile an hour icy winds blowing through the process area, the bolts are ceased on the pump casing as they having not been released for 10 years, the access for getting your spanner on the nuts was not thought through very well during design period 15 years prior.. you’re getting the picture right! that’s when you really learn and its impossible to learn that in a detached none working environment of a class room.

So how do I Start?

Whether you are a new comer seeking to get into your career or a practicing professional, back to basics is a must! If you’re a gas service engineer installing, fixing gas meters, a car mechanic, an electrician whatever it is, seeking a change you can become a commissioning expert but you’ll need to take a few steps back. I would suggest going back to college to take a technical hands on courses related to the specific area of interest, part time full time it doesn’t matter, Vocational Qualifications are extremely under valued by many employers, however, as a professional Commissioning Manager I will take the 4 year Vocational Training Student over the Degree qualified graduate every time. Vocational Training is an excellent approach to gain competency in the practical hands on skills, I would even suggest those graduate engineers undertake a 6 month course in Processing Hydrocarbons or Process Operations to give them that edge and hands on experience. Fortunately the UK, US, Canada, Australia and some of the others have a more open approach to the vocational qualification value, unlike the Middle East, some parts of Latin America where having a degree out ways having common sense in most cases. Again I don’t want to come across with negativity but there is a reality, and doer’s generally do without having to have a piece of paper to say they do. Many other countries are fortunately adopting the apprenticeship or vocational approach to develop technical competency, its, modular, its diversified, its multi-sector and becoming a growing trend in emerging markets where there is a large gap in technical skills within local content requirements whereby training large portions of the workforce quickly to a standard bench mark of competency is extremely attractive for economic and social development.

What are the personal benefits?

A good Commissioning expert can earn as much or more than a Lawyer or Doctor on a contract basis and can get to travel all around the world usually working in excellent conditions on a rotational basis, which means working part of the time on the project and having part of the time at home, in offshore locations, rotational work may mean half of the year off in some cases, not bad at all when you consider a salary can be well in excess of £150k for 6 months work.

So, where do you start and where can you end up, see the attached flow chart which gives some ideas to the roots and career path objectives that you can take from a basic technician level to end up a real expert in industry at the peak of your career. 

See the attached opportunities flow chart, these views are personal and do not reflect any specific situation, position growth is based on opportunity, personal ability, duration and will vary based on the type of projects your experience is gained. The Growth Process flow is based on achieving suitable skills and experience to undertake the role competently. Other roles may be applicable and be a bridge linked to the roles listed. Download the flow chart here: Karl-Farrow-Career-Opportunity-Development-Flow-Commissioning

What are the personal rewards?

Having work as Construction Hook up & Commissioning & Projects Manager all over the world over the last 20 years, I have worked through the ranks since my days as a young and naive 16-year-old apprentice welder fabricator. 30 years on, I have seen my fair share of new build developments, project start-up’s offshore and onshore and been part of many first’s and never been done before projects and scenarios. There is a deep satisfaction of seeing a piece of land transformed into a world breaking piece of engineering history or 50,000 tn of steel being crafted into a floating facility leaving a shipyard on its way offshore to its final resting place. But the real thrill is in the operational start-up phase, this is when we effectively start up the plant for the first time placing it into its designed operational status, this phase is normally undertaken with the clients operations team. Although systems are brought online systematically and safely we have to remember at this stage we are effectively energizing the whole plant for the first time putting all the components under their operational design conditions, this is called performance testing or “BoP” balance of plant there are many different terms one would like to use, but they all mean the same thing, at this stage is where you will find the problems, leaks, vibrations, heat expansion, trips, etc. not picked up during the pre-commissioning, testing or construction build. Although we have a term in the industry called “flawless start-up”, I like to refer to it as a “predictable start-up” there are always issues during start up of new plant and equipment,  the difference is experience prepares you to expect them so your prepare for them as best as possible, no start-up is without its odd issue here and there..

Bringing on hydrocarbons is always a tense moment, I have see grown men cry during these operations, it takes a special type of person working as part of the start-up team to walk through this process cool-headed, stressed steel plays a chilling song as it warms up and finds it comfort zone during a plant start up, this process involves long hours, days and sometimes weeks to bring a plant to a steady state to hand over to the clients operations team.

The commissioning world is a close net community, it’s a bit like the band of brothers and no man left behind type mentality but in general you get that sense of community in an offshore environment that you maybe don’t get on a normal job site. I have been truly blessed over the years to have work alongside, learnt from and shared ideas with some of the industries best, heroes and icons from all disciplines, nationalities and walks of life and today I try to stand by my laurels and pass on those valuable lesson learnt to the next generation of experts to be.

Where do I start?

There are a number of credited apprenticeship and vocational based providers around the globe who will give you the right competencies to pursue your career as a commissioning expert I would recommend a few at least as worthy contenders, there are obviously many more but those listed will give you a starting point and likely lead you to something else that suits your exact needs:

Competency Based Vocational Qualification Standards for Oil & Gas Renewable Industry

OPITOOffshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation is the global, not-for-profit, skills body for the energy industry. More than 250,000 people are trained to the OPITO standards every year, across 47 countries through 205 accredited training centers. OPITO is fast becoming the best practice framework for competency and industry standard, although many may say they are rigid in their standards they are consistently up to date and try to follow general best practice by region, not draw a line under what should be standards internationally, they are industry regulated so they have continual input by major Oil & Gas operators and leading service providers to ensure they are up to date with the latest development within the academic competency requirements to meet these standards.

OPITO – Oil & Gas Training Standards

Some other referenced Internationally Recognised Apprenticeship Programs:

UK – OPTIO – Oil and Gas Technical Apprentice Programme

UK – SQA – Scottish Qualification AuthorityOil and Gas Qualifications

UK – SQA – Scottish Qualification Authority – Power Generation and Renewables

UK – PAA\VQ-SET – NVQ – National Vocational Qualification – Oil & Gas Industry Process

CANADA – SAIT – NVQ – Oil & Gas Apprenticeship’s

USA – NVQ – HCCOil & Gas Exploration Apprenticeship’s

Should you wish any guidance on the above post or wish to add any comment I would like to hear from you: Good luck in following what I can only say has been a wonderful experience for myself;

Regards Karl Farrow – Professional Commissioning Expert

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