Ask any horizontal directional drilling (HDD) tooling manufacturer and they will tell you that selecting the correct tooling for an HDD job can mean the difference between a productive and profitable job vs. a slow and expensive job.
HDD tooling — and there are a multitude of products that fall under this designation — comprise a critical component of the HDD project chain. Tooling sales — new and used — have been strong and steady as the HDD industry as a whole has been riding an upswing the last few years.
But the good times came to a virtual standstill in March with the emergence of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) around the world. Right as I was talking with HDD tooling manufacturers for this article, the COVID-19 health crisis in the United States started to unfold, forcing mandatory shutdowns across the country for non-essential businesses. Most HDD manufacturers fall under the auspices of critical infrastructure and have remained opened, serving its customers the best they can during this pandemic. While the companies remain open, the pandemic has changed the short-term trajectory of the HDD market and the tooling sub-market.
“Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, the HDD market had been very strong,” says Radius HDD Tools president Riff Wright. “We had been reporting strong year-over-year growth since 2009. Of course, with today’s new reality of the stoppage of non-essential work [it] will certainly cool things down for a few months…I suspect once the virus has run its course, we will quickly ramp back up to speed as the backlog of work continues to grow. In the meantime, HDD drillers will persevere. They are proven to be experts in it.”
Melfred Borzall marketing director Peter Melsheimer also notes the impact the health crisis has had on the HDD industry, particularly the tool maker’s segment. “Up until [recently], people were definitely buying new and the HDD tooling market was booming,” he says. “2019 was the biggest year in our 74-year history.”
Melsheimer explains that when the HDD market was rolling, Melfred Borzall saw an increased volume in tools being bought but the size of them decreased. “We saw a lot more tooling being sold, but it was for smaller diameter installations,” Melsheimer says. “There were still some larger tools, such as 36-in. backreamers and 8-in. mud motors, going out but not nearly the same quantities as a few years ago.”
NUMA has also experienced the uptick of tooling sales over the last 18 months, with a definite boost in new equipment sales. “HDD companies are buying both new and used tooling. However, with advances in tooling capabilities, we have seen more growth in new HDD tool sales in the last 12 to 18 months,” says NUMA product manager-HDD Gregg Hayes. “This includes new rock drilling systems that are being used on many telecommunications projects around the country. Rerun roller cone bits and hole openers are also a significant portion of sales in the HDD rock market.”
So, contractors are buying tools. What tools should HDD contractors keep on hand? Most construction contractors have a multitude of tools in their toolbox — in preparation for whatever circumstance they encounter. With HDD contractors, it’s a bit different. The tools they use are paired with the ground conditions they are working in on any given project. What was good for a project in solid rock, would not work for their next project in a softer formation. What should they do?
“HDD drilling tools are specific to the formation that is being drilled so it depends upon what contractors are faced with on individual projects and conditions they face,” Hayes says. “Dirt drilling requires a blade or jetting assembly, which is seen in many applications. In rock formations, a mud motor or air hammer is required. Drillers should have a swivel to match the pull rating of their drill rig for installation of final product.”
Most HDD contractors will order bits and reamers as needed for hard formation rock projects and stock some rock tooling, such as milled tooth (MT) and tungsten carbide insert (TCI) pilot hole bits, smaller diameter MT and TCI reamers, for soft medium formations, says INROCK U.S. sales manager Chad Agnew. He notes that HDD contractors do stock standard tooling, depending on the size of their rigs and ground conditions. “Most HDD rigs will typically have tooling on hand to drill in softer formations (jetting assemblies for pilot hole, fly cutters and barrel reamers). Some contractors choose to fabricate their soft soil reamers in house in order to save money.”
Sharewell vice president of business development Frank McKenney suggests the following every day tools for the toolbox for mid- to large-size rigs: non-magnetic drill collars, non-magnetic orientation subs, jetting assemblies, crossover subs, float subs, spare MT and TCI rock bits, various jet nozzle sizes. “These will be required for any job and may need to be replaced at any time during the project due to normal wear and tear,” McKenney says.
When contractors are filling their toolboxes, what are some things that they need to consider before making that purchase? Our tooling panel offers up some advice, beyond just the price of the tool. Topping the list is the quality of the tool.
“Always consider quality first,” Wright says. “In the last 10 years, aftermarket manufacturers have developed HDD tooling that is as good or better than some OEM offerings. Regardless of color, find a tool that is well designed and well built. While good material and fabrication is easy to spot, tools that have threads or other tight tolerance areas require a little closer inspection. Loose thread tolerances or poorly aligned mating surfaces will increase flexing, wear and eventually fail.”
McKenney and Agnew both advise customers to obtain tooling that will provide the lowest cost-per-foot for the unique requirements of each project. “This philosophy will typically result in the fewest number of tools and the fewest number of trips out of the hole,” Agnew explains. “Some contractors buy tooling based on the lowest price per tool. This may result in multiple tools and multiple trips out of the hole to complete the pass. This option can cost the contractor more money in the long run.”
Hayes sums up his advice to customers looking to buy HDD tools to three things: 1) Match the proper tooling to their drill rig capabilities and formation to be drilled; 2) evaluate tooling cost vs. job pricing per foot; and 3) the reputation of the tooling manufacturer, including the expertise and support they provide.
Melsheimer offers this, “If you can find a bit or reamer that might cover a variety of your most commonly encountered conditions, that’s great. Do it. But don’t expect one tool to cover every condition. If you want to try to ‘share’ a tool between different drill rig models, just make sure they are all within the same power range — thrust/pullback force and rotary torque. If you have to share between mismatched powered rigs, get the tool to accommodate the larger rig. It might be a bit heavy for the crew with the smaller rig, but at least it won’t fail when used with the more powerful rig.”
Tooling manufacturers want customers to understand just how important tooling selection is to the success of their jobs. “At its worst, not selecting the correct tool can be the difference between a successful job or a fail,” Melsheimer simply says. “For example, if a 12-in. reamer designed for cobblestone conditions is used because it ‘came with the rig,’ but the actual conditions are sticky clay, the result will be like pulling a door knob through the ground expecting it to make a hole.”
McKenney says that it’s important to choose tooling that will achieve the highest rate of penetration (ROP) and durations to complete a project with minimum tool quantities and trips. “Also, make sure the rig can operate efficiently and cost effectively while providing the recommended operational parameter ranges for each tool size. Mud flow rates, mud cleaning capacities and mud additive programs are extremely important to drilling tool performance (ROP and longevity), as well as cuttings removal and retaining bore integrity. Another consideration is making sure the drill-pipe is inspected, in excellent condition and torqued up to specifications to avoid time consuming twist-offs.”
As with any piece of equipment, proper maintenance is key to getting the most life out of it. HDD tooling is no different; these pieces of equipment — which are an investment in your business — get down and dirty every time they are used and just can’t be neglected when the project is done.
“It’s a simple thing but cleaning all tooling when done is the best investment that can be made in HDD products,” Hayes says, noting that drillers should pay close attention to greasing swivels after use. “When tooling is not in use, care should be taken to store equipment per the manufacturer’s recommendations.”
“One tip would be to wash down drilling tools in and out with water to remove sand, mud and grit from surfaces, seals, bearings, jets. This will prevent dry plugging, rust, and corrosion build up,” McKenney says. “After this, lubricate moving parts, bearings and seals. Additionally, store bits, cutters and motors preferably under shelter out of the sun and extreme temps.”
Agnew adds these tips: proper drilling fluid characteristics, such as viscosity, mud weight and additives, proper flow rates (gpm) and proper drilling parameters (weight on bit/reamer, drill pipe RPMs). These, he says, are all critical factors that optimize tooling life. “Any of these factors can significantly decrease tool life if the proper recommendations are not followed.”