Operator Comfort

For years, European horizontal directional drill (HDD) operators have enjoyed creature comforts, such as enclosed cabs, enhanced controls and engines with lower noise levels. This trend is now reaching the United States, as drill manufacturers introduce creature comforts designed to reduce operator fatigue and encourage increased productivity.

“Operator comfort is becoming more of an issue in the United States,” says Ed Savage, trenchless segment manager for Vermeer Mfg. Co. “The world is a much smaller place. Most people have access to the Internet and are able to see what creature comforts are available on European equipment.”

Specifically, operators want machines that are easier to operate. Mid-size and large drills typically involve larger projects and require operators to sit for longer periods of time. This has driven company owners and drill operators to source drills with operator stations that are ergonomically designed for easier drill operation and operator comfort.

Creature comforts such as enclosed cabins were first introduced in the European market 10 years ago. The growth of creature comforts in the European market can be attributed to government directives aimed at enhancing machinery safety and reducing health-related risks commonly associated with machinery operation.

“The directives drive HDD design and help ensure all brands offer common features,” says Andre Hoondert of Vermint, the Vermeer European marketing arm. “Since health care systems in Europe are government funded, the directives are really designed to help limit health care costs.”

For example, in the Netherlands, equipment operators are allowed to work eight hours with equipment rated at 80 dB; above this limit, hearing protection is needed to protect the hearing of the drill operator, as well as the public in the vicinity of the operating drill. Manufacturers must limit drill vibration levels of the drills, which also helps to reduce operator fatigue. In addition, the vast majority of drills in Europe feature climate-controlled cabins to enhance operator productivity and concentration in various weather conditions.

Most Common Creature Comforts
Cabins are the most common creature comfort found on European drills with 10,000 lbs or more of pullback/thrust and up, according to Hoondert. Cabins provide an ideal environment for the operator regardless of weather conditions. They also help reduce noise, thus minimizing operator fatigue and allowing the operator to work in a wider range of weather conditions. The cabins offer the operator good visibility of the drilling operation — some cabins rotate to further enhance visual access to the operational components of the machine.

“Cabins have traditionally been offered on 100,000-lb and larger drills in the U.S. market,” says Savage. “Operators and owners of mid-size, 24,000 lbs and up, drills have been requesting cabins, and now a few U.S. manufacturers are offering climate-controlled cabins as an option.”

Other features gaining in popularity both in Europe and the United States are enhanced joystick controls and drill automation, as well as safety enhancements such as remote lock-out and two-way communication.

Ergonomically designed joystick controls help reduce operator fatigue on long bores by enabling the operator to independently control both drill stem rotation and drill stem travel. This increases the operator’s ability to feather the individual functions as necessary. Another operator expectation is the grouping of necessary switches or functions on the dual joysticks. Grouping the switches on the joysticks reduces the amount of time the operator spends searching for switches and can enhance productivity.

Drill automation systems continuously monitor changing soil conditions and adjust the bore or pullback speed as necessary, much like cruise control on a vehicle. Auto drill systems also help reduce operator fatigue.

“Some drill automation systems take the guesswork out of re-starting the bore process by automatically starting drill stem rotation before beginning the push or pull function,” says Hoondert. “This feature helps reduce the risk of ‘sticking’ the tool or product in the hole.”

Some manufacturers offer comprehensive bore planning software that gives the operator a detailed bore profile to follow. This information, including angles of approach, bend radius and avoidance of existing utilities, can be extremely useful in helping the operator navigate the bore.

“Creature comforts aren’t just a feature in Europe, they help companies retain experienced drill operators,” says Hoondert. “In Europe, it is becoming harder and harder to find good operators with the level of experience needed to operate a drilling rig.”

More engineers are entering the HDD business as drill operators than ever before. This trend is driven by Western Europe’s utility companies that are requiring drill companies to make re-bores on what has already been done. This requires a more specialized operator who understands the engineering and planning process.

“Planning has become 40 percent of the entire project,” says Hoondert. “This includes surveying the site, reviewing existing underground utility placement, calculating the size of the unit needed, developing the bore plan, determining the amount of fluid needed and ultimately determining if HDD is a viable option.”

Creature comforts have helped attract more engineers into the HDD business in Europe. Newer equipment with creature comforts also serves as a retention tool to keep experienced operators from moving from one company to another.

What Does the Future Hold?
“Manufacturers are increasingly paying more attention to operator comfort in the U.S. market,” says Savage.”The industry is beginning to introduce air-suspension seats, more ergonomically designed and placed controls, cabs with enhanced visibility and reductions in drill noise for the operator and surrounding public.”

Hoondert adds that in the future, the industry may move to electrically-powered machines in order to reduce noise levels and address emissions regulations around the world. He also believes the trends in Europe will place more focus on the total view of the drilling process. This will include more monitoring and measuring to provide the operator with enhanced information about drill and boring operations.

A German drill manufacturer recently introduced a remote-controlled drill. The manufacturer claims the drill does not require an operator and uses a walkover locator to send coordinates to the machine. The drill’s onboard computer uses the locator coordinates to automatically control the direction and rotation of the drill stem.

New navigation systems are in development that utilizes gyro technology to create a profile in the horizontal and vertical planes. The drill operator follows the profile and steers the drill stem accordingly. Currently, gyro technology is quite expensive and used mainly by the military. But as with most new technology, cost is declining and the size is shrinking.  

Creature comforts now appearing in the U.S. marketplace are just the beginning of a trend that will help reduce drill operator fatigue and ultimately enhance productivity. In the past, buyers of construction machinery made purchase decisions most often based on specification and price. Now creature comforts are starting to play a major factor in the decision making process, allowing operators to focus on the project and the machine operations.

“Providing operators with a comfortable piece of equipment to operate is almost the same as saying that they are doing a good job,” says Savage. “But creature comforts are also a selling point to many owners. The more comfortable and happy the operator, generally the more productive he or she will be.”

Greg Ehm is a technical writer, Des Moines, Iowa.

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