A Glimpse into the Compact Rig Market

The compact drill rig market has been a critical component in the horizontal directional drilling market — a market primarily used for the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) installations and came of age in the late 1990s as those fiber networks were dotting the landscape across North America.

This market has ebbed and flowed in the last decade, having strong years in 2005 and 2006 when there was a resurgence in compact drill work to weaker years in 2008 and 2009 when this market took a hit with the slowed economy.

As more municipalities and utility companies return their focus and financial efforts to improving utility infrastructure, the compact drilling market is slowly becoming the beneficiary of such moves. Many cities and towns are turning to HDD as they begin to upgrade their underground infrastructure systems, making such improvements a priority.

The compact rig market in North America is dominated by just a handful of manufacturers: Ditch Witch, Vermeer Corp., Astec Underground and TT Technologies — all players that have been in the HDD business for years and that have ridden out the good, bad and the ugly times of the market. Each of these companies has a few generations of their rigs under their belts, with each new line making them more competitive in the marketplace and offering something different for each customer.

Although compact rig sales in 2010 showed improvement over the recession years, like the economy, manufacturers say this HDD segment has a long road ahead to regain its footing.

“The market is back up in 2010 over 2009 but it has not recovered to the 2008 market,” said Tod Michael, trenchless engineering manage for Vermeer Corp., based in Pella, Iowa. “The demand for compact drills really cycles with the volume of FTTH projects. Municipalities and telecommunications companies really drive this market with new fiber installations or upgrade projects. Overall, the market is down right now, but we are seeing pockets across the world where a good share of work is still under way.”

Richard Levings, senior product manager with Ditch Witch, based in Perry, Okla., expressed similar sentiments. “The compact drill market was heavily affected by the 2008 and 2009 recession,” he said. “This was due to the reduction of projects primarily centered around the FTTH installations. 2010 saw some recovery in this market and money is now being allocated to fund new FTTH projects around the globe… Today, HDD is not only an alternative method of underground utilities installation, it often is the preferred method. This has helped the population of these size of units to flourish in the industry.”

The need for even smaller, yet powerful, rigs, such as those with 9,000 to 20,000 lbs of push/pullback, has grown over the years. Service connections can include water, gas, telecom, electric and fiber-optic, the latter being a popular segment of the market. These drills are specifically designed for the shorter, smaller diameter installs — typically connecting the home or business to a mainline running up and down the street. These smaller machines provide the maneuverability needed to work in these confined spaces — they must be able to get in and out of these tight areas with a light footprint.

Design of compact drills, like those in the mid- and maxi-size, have evolved over the last 20 years, giving operators all the bells and whistles for comfort and speed, as well as much needed power. While the overall look of the drill hasn’t changed much, there are a few noticeable additions.

“Compact rigs have seen a lot of changes from those units 20 or even 10 years ago,” said Carl Seeliger, utility product specialist for Astec Underground, based in Loudon, Tenn. “Totally self-contained units of today have all the needed hardware on-board compared to those drills produced years ago. Most units built 20 years ago needed an umbilical power pack to provide the hydraulics, electricity and mud flow needed for drilling. Units manufactured today have all of these necessary hardware components in one compact, self-contained package. The only thing a contractor needs is a fluid tank, locating electronics and of course the operator.”

Michael agreed, noting manufacturers are packing more power into the compact units today, allowing contractors to use them on a wider range of projects. “Depending on the manufacturer, most compact rigs offer many of the operating features found on their larger counterparts,” he said. “These features — such as auto-drilling functions, joystick handles with integrated controls, remote lockout features and rack-and-pinion carriage drives — help enhance the operation and performance of the drill rig. This can be important in an industry that, unfortunately, has a high operator turnover rate.”

He also noted that manufacturers have also taken into account more efficient trailer configurations, designing them to fit on a trailer side-by-side with the mix tank. “This helps make the trailer package more compact and can lead to the use of a smaller towing vehicle, as well.”

What are contractors looking for in a compact rig? Manufacturers said their customers are seeking reliability and ease of operation from their machine and service and support from their dealer. “Reliability, easy operation and a good return on the investment are important,” Michael said. “These units are easier to operate and the creature comforts reduce operator fatigue. It’s a world of difference from the units that were available just 10 years ago.”

“Contractors are looking for a product that offers reliable performance and key features that make drilling more profitable,” Seeliger said. “[They want] products that are easy to maintain and that don’t have them worrying about warranty issues and dealers that can’t or won’t be able to provide support throughout the lifecycle of the product.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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