Trenchless engineering has come a long way over the last 20-plus years. As the trenchless technology industry continues to grow and gain increased acceptance by project owners and municipalities, so has the engineering community’s knowledge and experience of trenchless. The engineering community has gotten more vocal over the years about the benefits that trenchless methods bring to any project and are now mentoring the next generation of engineers on this evolving industry. Trenchless is no longer a novelty market, but a full-blown force in the rehabilitation and installation of underground infrastructure. Today, trenchless technology is applied by the largest engineering firms, as well as those that specialize in their focus on trenchless.
With the cost and social benefit considerations so important to today’s project owners, the trenchless future is bright as today’s engineers apply trenchless methods and expertise to many of North America’s most complex and largest rehabilitation and construction projects. We invited several leading engineering firms to take part in an Engineering Roundtable to get their perspective on the state of the trenchless engineering industry and how it has evolved in recent years. Our participants tackle both rehabilitation and new installation projects, making their thoughts universal to our readers.
Participants are: Jason Lueke, Associated Engineering; John Peters, RJN Group Inc.; John Struzziery, Kleinfelder; and Glenn Duyvestyn, Hatch Mott MacDonald.
1. How has the trenchless engineering market evolved over last decade or so?
JL: The biggest change that I have seen is municipal owners that have become more knowledgeable and educated in trenchless means, methods and materials. Ten years ago, we would spend a lot of time explaining the benefits of trenchless, how it could be applied to their particular project and how trenchless could reduce social and construction costs. Some owners could not understand why engineering fees for trenchless designs could be lower than comparable open-trench work, but the costs for geotechnical investigations much higher. Some owners had not heard of pipe bursting or directional drilling. Many technologies would only be implemented as a demonstration project or in a pilot program. Trenchless had to be sold to the owner and it was perceived to be high risk and revolutionary — but maybe in some situations it was at that time. With each success, trenchless became more accepted as a viable alternative to conventional open trench construction. Venues like the Trenchless Technology Road Shows, regional chapter and national NASTT No-Dig conferences and magazines like Trenchless Technology became showcases for trenchless projects and moved helped move trenchless into mainstream engineering. We now see many owners specifying that trenchless be utilized on their projects.
GD: We are applying the technologies to longer and larger installations and applying relatively new technologies such as curved microtunnels. All of this through ground conditions that might have been unfeasible in the past
JS: The biggest shift I have seen is the way we use trenchless technologies. A decade ago, we saw mostly sewer and drain applications. Trenchless methods are now used in a variety of applications, including potable water, industrial uses and unusual, more challenging projects involving both small and large diameter pipelines. The emergence of new applications has primarily been driven by innovations in technology, both from equipment and materials advancements.
Today’s directional drills are larger and more powerful than before, making trenchless methods possible on very long sections of pipe that may not have been feasible 10 years ago. Improvements in pipe bursting and auger boring technologies have made trenchless methods possible on larger diameter pipes. Cured-in-place technologies have improved significantly in the last decade with the use of better resins and lining materials, many of which are built for specific types of applications that may not have been feasible in decades past.
JP: The technology advances have allowed for less surface disturbance and above grade impacts and interruptions. Production rates in the field have improved along with safety awareness. Today there is additional access to highly accurate field data that once collected can be accurately and easily imported into an office environment for analysis. The trenchless engineering market need has grown based on deferred and delayed maintenance and rehabilitation. The municipal budget constraints have added to this issue. Additionally, the underground infrastructure tends to get deferred attention compared with other infrastructure assets that can easily be maintained and inspected.
2. What are some of the challenges faced by specialist trenchless consultants working as sub-contactors?
JL: Associated Engineering is a full-service multi-disciplinary consulting company that provides trenchless engineering as one of our services. Trenchless ties into almost all aspects of our business — be it structures for the design of tunnel liners and shafts, water modelling for capacity analysis for rehabilitation programs, GIS for inventory and assessment of buried infrastructure, or transportation for crossings and culverts. Being a full-service engineering company gives us many opportunities to cross sell our expertise and enhances the services we can offer our clients in the trenchless sector. As such, I think we are somewhat shielded from the challenges that smaller specialist consultants may face. In our market sectors we are facing increased competition from eastern based consultants, and some economic uncertainty that has delayed funding for some projects.
GD: In many cases, the prime designer believes that trenchless design is a simple ‘black box.’ They often do not understand what is required and need education to be brought up to speed.
JS: As technological improvements are made in materials and equipment, specialist trenchless consultants tackle ever more complex projects. We are asked to look at projects involving pipes as small as 2 in. in diameter and as large as 84 in. or greater. These projects often include multiple bends, changes in alignment and difficult site conditions. Frequently, consultants from multiple disciplines are involved, such as civil, geotechnical, structural, and even sometimes electrical, mechanical and HVAC specialists. So, these projects are no longer simply trenchless. Coordination is required with a number of specialty consultants, contractors and subcontractors, and managing these projects is often a challenge.
JP: As with any project a challenge is ensuring there is a strong communication between the consultant and the contractor to allow for a successful project completion. Another challenge is balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders and governmental agencies that can influence a project. Also by virtue of the type of work, the underground portion of a project can have more unknowns based on the size and location of project. There can be at times an education process required for the owner and the prime contractor, who might not have as much experience with or deal with trenchless situations on a daily basis.
3. What are most common risks you see from a liability standpoint?
JL: The biggest risks we see in trenchless projects are from geotechnical baseline information, and contractors not understanding the project risks and requirements. These are the biggest sources of stress on a project — perhaps they are related in a sense. We try to mitigate these risks by pre-qualifying contractors on larger more complex projects such as river crossings. It really depends on how much of the project is trenchless.
GD: Having to accept the lowest bid; often not from the most qualified contractor. When these contractors get into trouble, many times the only recourse is to try to blame the design and/or the ground conditions.
JS: Trenchless applications are very attractive options for owners who want to avoid excavation, surface disruptions and associated impacts. As trenchless technologies gain more awareness, we receive requests to use them on extremely challenging projects involving difficult site conditions or other constraints. The more challenging the application, the more risk may be involved. In some cases, it may be something the firm has never tried before. We really have to look at all the project constraints that pose a significant risk to project failure — whether these are surface features, soil conditions, pipe size, pipeline configuration, constructability or accessibility concerns — and determine whether a dig and replacement may be a safer or better option, even if it is more costly.
JP: Potential for unknown site conditions. Safety with any construction project is important but particular attention to open excavations and trenching hazards. Finally, dealing with underground liability as it pertains to road crossings/easements and other pre-existing infrastructure is a potential liability. Directional drilling around existing infrastructure and other utilities (electric/gas/pipelines etc) is a potential liability. Finally the possibility of environmental impacts on streams and wetlands are concern during a project.
4. How have design-build contracts impacted trenchless design firms and the trenchless market in general?
JL: In our business sectors we are seeing what we hope to be the beginning of a trend for more design-build opportunities involving trenchless construction. There have been a couple recent local design-build projects involving large diameter tunnels for municipal clients. The teaming of contractors specializing in trenchless methods, with consulting firms specializing in trenchless design, should result in significant advantages for the client and innovations for the industry. I think design-build is a good fit for the trenchless market — and see this as the way of the future for trenchless projects.
JS: We are just starting to see design-build on trenchless projects. Favorable working relationships with contractors provide us with such opportunities. Both we and contractors have recognized the potential for making contact with different owners to expand our range of influence and provide different types of teaming arrangements. Although not strictly design-build, we also see greater collaboration and coordination with contractors and trenchless specialty subcontractors on conventional projects. In addition, we value the experience and capabilities of trenchless specialty contractors when we encounter difficult and challenging aspects on projects and look to them to see how this networking can help provide insight in addressing these issues.
JP: Design-build has been prevalent in vertical construction as well as above grade infrastructure for years (bridges, roads, etc). Design-build as a procurement methodology is becoming more prevalent in the trenchless market. The ability to enhance project schedules coupled with a shifting of risk away from the owner is a critical piece to the rise in design-build in the trenchless market. Design-build also allows for a single point of contact and the nature of trenchless projects are good candidates for design-build. This year, we have seen an increase in the number of trenchless projects being procured and advertised design-build compared to recent years.
5. What does a trenchless engineering firm need to do to stay competitive in today’s market and the future?
JL: Besides offering exceptional service, exceeding your client’s expectations and delivering a high quality product within the client’s economic reality — trenchless engineering firms need to realize that they are offering a specialized service that sometimes has a narrow application. Not every utility project is trenchless, not every client is interested in pursuing trenchless solutions. In addition to trenchless-focused projects, we actively look for opportunities within conventional utility and infrastructure projects where the application of trenchless will deliver a superior product at reduced social and economic costs. For projects that are trenchless, we strive to be experts in knowing what technologies are applicable to specific situations; maintain good working relationships with contractors; keep current with the industry trends; and invest in education, training, and other professional development opportunities to have personnel with high levels of competency.
GD: It is difficult to do this when more and more clients want to select engineers based on low cost, while we must pay what the market bears in terms of trenchless talent. Ultimately, the trenchless firms that will be practicing and competitive tomorrow will be the firms that maintain quality and integrity in the face of these challenges. Firms with unqualified or under-qualified staff may be less expensive but they will ultimately cost owners more in terms of poor designs, failed projects, etc.
JS: To stay competitive in today’s market, it is crucial to stay informed of advances in technologies and techniques. I believe industry engagement is essential to doing so. There are a number of organizations specific to the trenchless industry that seek to educate us, such as American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Pipeline Division, Trenchless Technology Center (TTC), North American Society of Trenchless Technology (NASTT), Underground Construction Technology (UCT), as well as local and regional trenchless societies throughout the country. These groups and their events are excellent ways to meet new vendors, contractors, potential teaming partners and often project owners.
As engineers, it is essential to share our knowledge with project owners and make them aware of the new technologies. I believe there’s still hesitancy among municipalities to use trenchless methods, especially on water distribution projects. We need to continue to raise awareness of the benefits and potential uses of trenchless so that owners can take advantage of what new technologies have to offer.
JP: Be flexible and adapt to changing market drivers and procurement methodologies. A firm must maintain perspective on the fact that the underground piece of the project is a component of the overall infrastructure solution. Also as the project size increases, trenchless firms must realize that their portion of the project will likely be a component of a larger infrastructure initiative.
6. How do you recruit trenchless engineers? WhAT options are there for trenchless engineering training?
JL: Finding engineers with trenchless knowledge and expertise is a challenge. For the past three years, Associated Engineering had been actively looking for engineers with trenchless expertise and did not find many suitable candidates. The search was done by word of mouth, magazine advertisements and Internet postings. We found that it was more effective to train and develop our trenchless expertise in house rather than to specifically hire trenchless engineers. We are able to do this through our mentoring program; involvement in organizations such as NASTT; lunch and learn presentations; short courses and training through NASTT, CATT and other organizations; and working closely with contractors and other sub-consultants. Being a full-service engineering firm, new engineers are exposed to a variety of civil infrastructure projects and some become keenly interested in trenchless engineering — and these are the ones who we provide guidance and mentoring to develop and hone their skills in the design and construction of trenchless projects.
GD: Advertising does little good in recruitment as there are too few qualified engineers to go around. We typically hire talented geo-structural engineers from universities that teach the basics well. Then we train the staff to become trenchless engineers. There are short courses and other training programs but we find that on the job training, with qualified mentors, is still the best way to grow and retain staff.
JS: It seems today’s colleges and universities are adding more courses and complete programs in trenchless technologies than ever before. One of the stand-out programs in the United States is at Louisiana Tech University, which is home to the Trenchless Technology Center (TTC). We seek out engineers from local universities with relevant and applicable backgrounds in civil and/or geotechnical disciplines that have an interest in trenchless methods. For those that are interested, there are plenty of opportunities to learn through mentoring programs and engagement with industry organizations.
Perhaps one of the more useful ways to attract trenchless engineers is to get them engaged on active projects. By piquing their interest, providing coaching and mentoring, and getting them involved in a variety of challenging projects, we have had great success in expanding their interest and desire to understand more about trenchless.
JP: We look for candidates that have a combination of a degreed engineering background coupled with practical construction field experience. Internal training of design engineers and promotion from within the organization. In addition to in house training, there are several conferences that provide a combination of seminar and field study. The No-Dig show and the OUCC are examples of opportunities for additional training.
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.
– – – – –
Jason is the Corporate Trenchless Practice Leader for Associated Engineering, a Canadian consulting firm headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has more 15 years of experience in the trenchless industry as a contractor, engineer and educator. Jason serves on the Board of Directors for the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT) and is an instructor for its Lateral Sewer Rehabilitation, Horizontal Directional Drilling and Pipe Bursting Best Practices courses.
John has more than 22 years of engineering and environmental consulting industry experience. He has specific experience with design build contracts and working in environmentally sensitive areas that require responsive attention to site challenges while maintaining cost-effective solutions. He has been with RJN Group Inc. (RJN), Wheaton, Ill., since 2007 and has been a principal and vice president at the firm since 2011.
John is a Principal Engineer at Kleinfelder, Cambridge, Mass., and has been with the firm for nearly 30 years. He has more than 37 years of experience in planning, design, and construction of large, heavy civil, multi-million dollar sewer, drainage and water projects with specialized expertise in the use and applications for trenchless technologies. At Kleinfelder, he currently works as the Senior Program Manager for the City of Cambridge, Mass., on the City’s sewer separation and stormwater management program and am civil chair of Kleinfelder’s Trenchless Technologies Practice Group.
Glenn brings 11 years of professional civil engineering experience in the trenchless field and is a Senior Trenchless Specialist with Hatch Mott MacDonald. He has a doctorate degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His research focused on predicting ground movements during pipe bursting and horizontal directional drilling installations. Glenn has worked on some of the most challenging microtunneling, open shield pipe jacking, auger boring, horizontal directional drilling, pipe ramming and pipe bursting projects in North America and in Australia.