Trenchless Pioneers – Dr.-Ing. E.h. Martin Herrenknecht

Trenchless Pioneers is a special monthly series sharing with readers the trailblazers who grew and expanded the trenchless industry.
Martin Herrenknecht

When it comes to innovations in trenchless installations, it’s difficult to ignore Herrenknecht AG and the pioneering contributions of its founder and chairman of board, Martin Herrenknecht.

Herrenknecht’s first taste of tunneling came in the early 1970s as director of mechanical engineering service on an American tunnel boring machine as part of the Seelisberg Project in Switzerland.

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“The Seelisberg [project] infected me with the ‘tunneling virus,’ that is the idea that mechanized tunneling is a fascinating venture of constant innovation and development and, at the same time, has one direction only: Forward,” says Herrenknecht. In 1977, he formed Herrenknecht GmbH, focused first on small-diameter excavation machines for soft ground and later for hard rock.

Known for its tunnel boring machines, when it comes specifically to trenchless works, Herrenknecht is known for horizontal directional drills, AVN microtunnel boring machines and most recently its Direct Pipe system.

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“Machines from our [company], in the hands of our customers, have successfully mastered some of the most prominent projects in the past 40 years,” says Herrenknecht. He goes on to specifically call out the 4th Elbe Tunnel in Hamburg, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the Bosporus crossing in Istanbul and the world’s largest tunnel boring machine in Hong Kong.

“These tunnels defined engineering milestones of tunneling in terms of diameter, depth and pressure, as well as drive length. Specifically, to name one example, we developed the Mixshield – together with Wayss & Freytag – and the accessible cutterhead to master high ground water pressure and safe changes of cutting tools,” says Herrenknecht.

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In 1994, the Europipe Project showcased the newly developed AVN machine equipped with a cone crusher that successfully drove 2.5 km – in a single go – for a gas pipeline under the North Sea coast. Through a vigorous R&D program Herrenknecht’s (the company) latest contributions to the trenchless field are the Direct Pipe, Pipe Express and E-Power Pipe systems.

Looking back at his earliest days in the equipment manufacturing world, Herrenknecht learned quickly that contractors and system owners alike wanted to see proof of concept. They wouldn’t accept a new technology that existed only on the drawing board.

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“It took us around five years to sell the first 150 machines,” he says. “Our business accepts only concepts that work absolutely reliably under the harshest conditions, under highest pressure, in the hardest rock.”

So, what does the future hold for technologies coming from Herrenknecht and the trenchless world as a whole? Martin Herrenknecht points to automation and digitization.

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“These technologies will support us to create safe and attractive jobs in our industry and they will push the efficiency of our machines and of the entire jobsite,” he says.

He goes on to note that trenchless technology is the optimal answer to the demand for efficient and sustainable underground utility infrastructure. Climate change and urbanization, he notes, will challenge the sector to deliver solutions to this demand.

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Herrenknecht is just as excited today as he was more than 40 years ago when he formed the company that bears his name. He supports the family-run company with his expertise and experience and is pleased to see the next generation poised to take the reins.

“I am proud to see that my son is taking over more and more responsibility,” he says, noting that Martin-Devid Herrenknecht joined the board of management in 2022.

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Regarding his legacy to the trenchless industry, he says this, “From my point of view, a person’s legacy is not defined by himself but rather by his (or her) partners, colleagues and companions. I hope, though, that our company’s input to the trenchless industry is valued as an impulse of innovation and courage to tackle even the hardest challenges.”

Mike Kezdi is the managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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