Ed Malzahn

Trenchless Pioneers: Ed Malzahn

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

Ed Malzahn is one of the iconic names that goes hand-in-hand with the trenchless industry. A true innovator, his pioneering contributions to trenchless technology and, notably, the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) sector reverberate on today’s jobsites.

He passed away in December 2015, at 94, still putting in time at the Perry, Oklahoma, manufacturing company his grandfather established in 1902, known then as Malzahn’s Blacksmith Shop, which grew into the globally-known Ditch Witch. Recognition of Malzahn’s accomplishments as an industry leader and innovator include his induction into the Oklahoma Inventors Hall of Fame, American Rental Association Hall of Fame, Construction Equipment Hall of Fame and North American Society for Trenchless Technology Hall of Fame.

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Ed joined his father’s business in 1944. In 1949, he saw a need for a better way for plumbers to install lines from the road to the house and created the world’s first service line trencher, the Ditch Witch Power. He next developed the Roto Witch, which enabled contractors to drill a hole under concrete vs. trenching through it.

“Ed always saw the bigger picture and had a never-ending urge to improve things,” says Ditch Witch vice president Kevin Smith, who has been working in the Ditch Witch family of companies since 1993. “The [DWP] started it all, but there were more needed solutions out there. Horizontal directional drilling was available but had room for improvement. A master creator and innovator, Ed was always pushing for something a little more, a little better.”

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Under Malzahn’s supervision, Ditch Witch partnered with the Gas Junction Institute to develop slant nose technology, which allows laborers to guide the drill in any direction underground. This technology, Smith says, revolutionized the HDD industry and made pipe and cable installation significantly more efficient. From there, Malzahn pursued and developed more pioneering technology for the HDD industry.

One area he helped to pioneer was finding a better way to locate what utilities existed underground and how to guide the drill stem through the ground. He formed Ditch Witch’s own HDD guidance company, Subsite Electronics, with the Subsite equipment paired with the Ditch Witch drills. He also saw a need for improved HDD drill pipes so they could meet performance standards. Smith says his system approach to design and build downhole tooling and pipes to maximize the performance of the HDD system moved the industry forward. Further, under Ed’s direction, Ditch Witch developed the All-Terrain Digging System to help address areas with adverse soil condition, allowing contractors to drill through hard rock formations.

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“Because of Ed’s vision and pioneering spirit, the HDD industry went from ‘drilling blind’ to some of the most sophisticated and efficient construction equipment in the world,” Smith says. “He would have been impressed by the growth of today’s trenchless market. He was always a man of creation and innovation and to see all the new developments would have made him proud.”

Smith notes that Malzahn saw the trenchless industry as more than just the construction equipment being manufactured but it was about the people — the people who built the equipment, as well as the people are impacted by the rehabilitated and new pipes being put in the ground. “A big part of what the trenchless industry does is connect people, communities, cities, states and countries,” he says. “This industry matters and it mattered to Ed. Cable television, plumbing, sewage, telecom and power. All of it is underground construction. We like to say the work we do powers people’s lives. Everyone feels the impact of underground construction within the first 30 minutes of their day. They wake up and flip on the light switch — we make the equipment that installed the product for that to be able happen … Quality of life and connection to community is what drove Ed for decades in our industry.”

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Malzahn’s legacy and contributions speak for themselves. Smith describes Malzahn’s legacy to the trenchless industry this way: “Ed was an innovator and an engineer until his passing. His story will forever be told throughout the underground construction industry and, just as important to him, the Perry, [Oklahoma,] community. [His legacy] to HDD and the trenchless industry is one of a trailblazing spirit that would forever change how underground construction is used and developed.”

Sharon M. Bueno is the editor of Trenchless Technology.

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