In the Neighborhood Utility Contractors Keep Compact HDD Market Busy

Large horizontal directional drilling (HDD) projects – like Michels Canada’s 7,200 ft, 42-in. crossing completed Nov. 21, beneath the Athabasca River in Alberta, Canada — are the ones that leave a person agape at how far the equipment has come. That is great for the industry, but it is the opposite end of the spectrum — with the compact HDD units — that John and Jane Q. Public see almost every day.

“The compact drill lends itself to areas where you need a lot of push and pull, and you don’t have a lot of area to work or there is a lot of development where you wouldn’t want to conduct open-cut operations,” says Josh Beddow, marketing manager for underground at Toro. Since Toro joined the HDD world — with the acquisition of Astec’s HDD line in 2012 — the company has watched as the compact segment has grown year-over-year.

Fueling the need for these compact HDDs — typically 20,000 lbs of thrust/pullback and less — is the push for more telecommunications and fiber installations from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink and Google as its customers clamor for 4G and 5G connectivity. Not far behind are natural gas distribution systems, which are in various stages of upgrades across the continent.

As such, utility contractors make up the bulk of the customers and the major manufacturers in this category are: Ditch Witch with its JT5, JT9 and JT20; Vermeer with its D6x6, D9x13 S3 and D20x22 S3; and Toro with its DD 2024. Others in the field include McCloskey’s D15; TT Technologies’ 40/60 and 4X; and Universal HDD’s UNI 12×15 and UNI 12x15L.

HDD Market Expected to Grow

In October 2015, Grand View Research, a market research and consulting firm, released “Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) Market Analysis by End-use (Utilities, Telecommunication), And Segment Forecasts To 2022.” In the report, Grand View Research projects that the global HDD market size is expected to reach $14.95 billion (U.S.) by 2022. Much of this growth is attributed to telecommunications, fiber and utility work.

In the last five years, maxi rig markets have seen growth, with the exception of 2015 due to low oil prices, says Tod Michael, product manager of trenchless products at Vermeer Corp. Through that same period the compact through midsize rigs have seen continued growth.

“I think the primary reason is the communications and gas work going on. If you look at the central and eastern portions of the United States, there is a lot of work going on replacing gas services as the product [in the ground] is becoming obsolete and needs to be replaced and the amount of fiber installation going on,” he says.

Much of this work takes place in urban and suburban settings where people live and work and the space for work is constricted to a small right of way — often times no wider than the rig itself.

“Size is not just the footprint on the jobsite, it’s also the trailer package that goes with the drill — what the customer has to transport to the jobsite,” says Seth Matthesen, senior HDD product manager at the Ditch Witch organization. “The compact drill market has seen the largest growth over the past several years. The work being completed in these markets, urban and residential areas, lend itself to the more compact equipment which makes the combination of size and power key to success.”

While having a smaller footprint on the trailer and the jobsite is nice, the true feats of engineering come in to play when considering contractors still require reliability, power and plenty of drill pipe. Many of the advancements on that end are associated with the technological advancements that come with the adoption of Tier 4 emissions regulations.

As technology and electronics improve, manufacturers are able to offer contractors more options at their fingertips.

As technology and electronics improve, manufacturers are able to offer contractors more options at their fingertips.

Technology Improves Performance, Reliability

Looking at the engines, the Tier 4 engines found in today’s HDD rigs are much quieter, an important aspect when working 9-5 around homes and businesses. Quieter machines are one of the things HDD customers have requested based on who they were working around rather than who was working for them, but research shows there are benefits to a less noisy work space.

“What we found in quieting our machines is that operator fatigue decreases. I don’t think many contractors realize it until they operate a machine that is so much quieter,” Michael says. “When they have to go back and run something that is loud again, they realize how tired they are at the end of the day compared to a machine that is quieter.”
As the engines changed, so too did the hydraulics and electronics systems with Vermeer, Toro and Ditch Witch all taking advantage of what technology has to offer. This includes the addition of telematics, CAN-bus electronics systems, productivity tools and more common controls across the product line.

“In general, the compact rig market is all about how much performance you can offer in as small a footprint as possible. Manufacturers like Toro and others are still trying to optimize that,” Beddow says. “We continue to push the envelope on more performance, higher outputs in terms of torque and thrust in a smaller footprint, making hydraulics more efficient and using a higher horsepower engine if it fits in a smaller package.”

“The technology has opened the door to new options, and we talk to the end-users to find out how we can use the technology to help them do their job better,” Beddow adds.

Controls that are more common across a product line offer an advantage in an industry that is facing an operator shortage. For example, a contractor with multiple machines can train a new hire once and cover the entire fleet or the contractor could entice an experienced operator familiar with a particular product line. The contractor also benefits when looking to replace a rig. With more common controls, they do not have to re-train their workforce on operating the new drill.

“That has been a big focus, and I would say that Vermeer, at least for our S3 drills, is similar from machine to machine,” Michael says. “We’ve been working on common controls for years. They have had a very common look, but there were always little subtle differences from machine to machine. It’s not just the customer facing side, but it’s behind the scenes on our side, where we’re doing the designs on the software. It helps us to make machines that run the same, function the same and are more reliable because the control systems are the same. We are not testing 10 different systems instead we’re testing one or two systems now.”

Manufacturers Step-up Training Effort

Manufacturers are also increasing a focus on workforce training with Vermeer launching its HDD Circuit operator-training program late last year. The Ditch Witch organization is continuing to meet the training needs of its customers by launching a new, expanded Ditch Witch Certified Training program in January 2016 that provides operator training when and where the customer needs it and at no cost. At ICUEE 2015, both manufacturers, along with Ericsson, announced a plan to work together in training and field support to create qualified crews for fiber-optic installations.

“Keys to this sized product is ease to get to the jobsite, ease of setup, ease of operation,” says Matthesen. “There are a lot of new operators in the industry today, training has always been important in the HDD industry but current demands for skill operators is more prevalent than ever. Training is key with any product, and we try to keep the operator station theme consistent throughout our product line.”

Training is a key component for success at the utility contractor level — especially when looking at the next five to six years.

“If you look at the gas distribution and communication work, we would expect that the market will continue to be very strong in the next couple of years. There are indications out there that fiber expansions will continue and what that magic timeline is, is anybody’s guess and it may ramp up in some locations,” Michael says. “There is a lot of aging infrastructure, and I don’t see that going away any time real soon and we’ll see solid growth.”
Mike Kezdi is associate editor of Trenchless Technology.
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