Like so many companies in the trenchless new installation sector, Vector Magnetics traces its roots to the oil and gas industry.
So how exactly did a company, headquartered in Ithaca, New York – not exactly a hotbed of oil and gas activity – come to be? And more importantly, how did it migrate its expertise to the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) world?
To answer the first question, as is the case for many businesses in Ithaca, the company has strong ties to Cornell University. It was there that Vector Magnetics founder Arthur Kuckes, PhD, a professor of physics, honed his experience and research in magnetics.
Amoco approached Kuckes in 1980 because it needed assistance in locating and killing the R.L. Bergeron No. 1 well blowout near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Dr. Kuckes’ research experience with magnetometers allowed him to develop a ranging system that was able to locate and track an installed well casing or drilling assembly by detecting its magnetic signature,” says Jed Sheckler, director of marketing at Vector Magnetics. “This technology was used to successfully locate and kill the R.L. Bergeron blowout and would go on to commercial success as the WellSpot active magnetic ranging tool.”
Based on the success of the technology, WellSpot was distributed to the oil and gas industry by Gearhart Industries and known as ELREC. After Gearhart Industries stopped its distribution, Kuckes took a leave from Cornell and incorporated Vector Magnetics in 1985.
A Company Is Born
“We’ve been, from the beginning, developers and manufacturers. Once we had these tools, we started operating a service to deliver the tools to customers,” says David Mohler, president and CEO. “It all started with that key development and understanding magnetics. Hence, the name Vector Magnetics, it’s all about that direction and distance. Your magnitude and direction are your vector and we’re all about magnetics.”
Mohler, a geologist, joined Vector Magnetics in 2004 to work in the field on the oil and gas side. He also held roles in design, calibration services and customer support before moving to management. In 2021, Vector Magnetics announced a new management team that includes Mohler as president and CEO and Elliot Swarthout as vice president of operations.
“We started in a garage with Arthur [Kuckes], grew to a small staff of about a dozen people, and we’ve doubled that to today with about 24 people,” Mohler says. “We are a relatively small company, and we all wear a lot of hats which is part of the fun. The focus is on keeping the development, manufacturing, service and support in-house.”
From 1985 to the late 1990s, Kuckes and his team were squarely focused on the oil and gas world – improving the WellSpot system and looking at other opportunities related to tracking – developing technologies using solenoids and rotating magnets.
“We developed important technologies for relief well drilling. The rotating magnet is one of the key developments for parallel drilling and intersections,” says Mohler. “That technology continues to be used for solution mining and placement of bores anywhere you require the highest degree of accuracy and great range. Our solenoid, the Magnetic Guidance Tool (MGT), was important for parallel drilling of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) wells in Canada for heavy oil production and in other places for intersections.”
Mohler notes that it was through these technologies that Vector Magnetics gained a reputation as a leader in the development of magnetic tracking with proven tangible results. Unlike in HDD where the operator can validate accuracy when the drill punches out, oil well drillers don’t have that.
“We would do these projects with our ranging technology and these guys would be amazed that we could intersect and re-enter these old [well] bores. Whether for plugging and abandoning or a relief well, there are all these different challenging scenarios,” he says. “The real proof is when we’d intersect the other hole and run cameras in [to verify]. It’s pretty neat to see the technology really works.”
Mohler adds, “That knowledge — proving the technology and having tangible results — is kind of core to who we are. We pride ourselves on the technology. It’s straight forward and easy to use and the results speak for themselves.”
It was these tangible results and reputation that Kuckes built in the company’s first decade that led Vector Magnetics down the road to the trenchless industry and horizontal directional drilling – and an answer to the second question posed at the beginning of this story.
The Trenchless Pivot
John Teer the founder of Prime Horizontal connected with Kuckes in the 1990s. Teer was part of the team at Sharewell that worked on the Sharewell/Tensor joint venture that led to the creation of the Tru-Tracker surface tracking system, which relied on DC currents.
After departing Sharewell, Teer formed Prime Horizontal and began working towards an alternative solution to that system. This led Teer to Kuckes and his team at Vector Magnetics. Teer was aware of their work in the oilfield and their expertise in AC and DC magnetic signals.
“Teer was persuasive with [Kuckes] that [the HDD industry] really needed this technology. Prime Horizontal had been trying to make improvements on existing technologies, but [because of] our expertise and background in magnetics, we were able to do that [make improvements],” says Mohler. “We were already operating a wireline, and we saw that we could adapt this technology and package it for HDD.”
Prime Horizontal and Vector Magnetics began a co-development agreement that led to the creation of the ParaTrack Guidance System. In April 1999, Prime Horizontal proved the benefit of the system by completing the first ParaTrack HDD project in France. In August of that same year, Prime Horizontal completed the first three commercial projects using ParaTrack on three 1,100-m crossings of 36-in. pipe.
The Tru-Tracker system relied on a heavy wire coil – often energized by a welding machine – using a DC magnetic field. Understanding the limitations of DC tracking, the team at Vector Magnetics saw where improvements could be made to improve efficiency and accuracy and reduce the cost of the guidance portion of a project.
“The resulting ParaTrack2 Guidance system used an AC rather than a DC magnetic field,” Sheckler says. “This increased the speed and range at which a pilot bore could be tracked, while simultaneously improving accuracy.”
Vector Magnetics and Prime Horizontal brought the system to market in 2001. Other positives of the ParaTrack2 system are that it uses a smaller wire, lower-current energy supply and is very safe.
Since those days at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, Vector Magnetics has slowly pivoted to focus strictly on HDD technologies revolving around guidance and tracking. In 2012, Vector Magnetics exited the oil and gas services space with the sale of the WellSpot technology to Haliburton.
All the company’s improvements in HDD guidance technologies have been incremental building on an already successful system.
“One of the key things we developed was the RivCross software that was a tool that was developed specifically for HDD,” says Mohler. “Our idea was to integrate tracking, surveying, planning and reporting, so that the guidance engineer can do everything they need – for the most part – from one spot.”
RivCross, he says, created an understandable and usable platform that integrated all its technologies into a single user interface.
Vector Magnetics’ HDD-focused technologies include:
- ParaTrack Steering Tool – Rugged and dependable magnetic steering tool and the entry point to the wider ParaTrack Guidance System. (1999)
- ParaTrack2 AC Guidance – The original AC wire tracking system. (2001)
- Beacon Tracker System – AC surface tracking without a wire making it portable and more accurate than micro-coil systems. The dual solenoid system provides tracking to ranges exceeding 300 ft. (2002)
- At Bit Inclination Assembly (ABIA) – The only inclination at bit solution developed specifically for drillers who want immediate feedback from the bit, reducing the risk of breaking radius, and allowing a smoother pilot bore. (2009)
- ParaTrack Gyro – A highly accurate fiber-optic gyro guidance tool that allows many pilot bores to be drilled without secondary tracking. (2017)
- Pressure Module – Real-time pipe and annular pressure monitoring.
“Our milestones are marked by when the technology is brought to market and all are based on customer demand,” Mohler says. “We really try to stay plugged into the customers. We look for what we think are the challenges that the users face, and we want to be responsive to that.”
“We believe in offering robust, accurate, and easy-to-use guidance systems that expand the scope of projects which can be completed via HDD,” Sheckler adds. “Investment in a ParaTrack Guidance System provides access to a wide range of guidance technologies, allowing the customer to select the elements most suitable for each job. Customers have the option to own and operate their own guidance system, or to contract with our distributor partners.”
It is through a strong relationship with its distributors and development partners Prime Horizontal and INROCK that Vector Magnetics can stay in touch with customers and better understand their evolving needs.
“They operate worldwide sales and service operations. That gives us the global reach. It allows us to hear from all kinds of markets. Even within North America, the needs are different, depending upon where you go. We get to hear about that. They have people running a guidance service business on location with customers. They are our ears and our eyes to some degree. They get us on sites so we can visit, talk to customers and test new technologies. It’s our link to the field,” says Mohler. “They also see needs. For instance, Prime approached us originally to pitch the idea of getting into HDD. INROCK was important in the development of the gyro. They helped us get on customer locations to test, hone and improve it before we launched it on the market. They are important in helping to guide where we might go in terms of the next improvement or innovation. It all ties in and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Addressing Industry Challenges
While the movement to trenchless was not a difficult thing for Vector Magnetics, providing a net positive benefit to the company, HDD does have its ups and downs.
“Vector Magnetics is subject to the same challenges as the rest of the industry. The pandemic has been a challenge, along with the ups and downs of the HDD market overall,” says Sheckler. “Our industry will see challenges as the future of investment in infrastructure related to fossil fuels is debated, however, globally there appears to be increasing demand for those products which should continue to provide opportunity. We anticipate continued demand for HDD to bury electrical transmission lines, connect offshore wind and other important infrastructure projects.”
Another challenge to the industry – and it’s an area where user-friendly and intuitive technologies really shine – is when it comes to worker shortages. When a company has a hard time hiring and retaining employees, it’s important the systems they use are easily taught.
“We want to make sure that we build the best guidance tools we can and that all our products are dependable, have a long service life and are well supported,” says Mohler. “Gaining new customers is one thing, we really want to hold on to the customer. When you come over to our system, we want you to see the value for yourself and stick around because we will support you.”
Mohler adds that Vector Magnetics has a renewed and strong focus on improving its training offerings. This equates to more site visits to customers’ projects along with its distributors, improved documentation and manuals for the systems and looking at ways to offer remote, video-based, training.
Looking ahead, Sheckler sees growth opportunities for the ParaTrack Guidance System, and the company is in the process of developing a ParaTrack EM system, which is an electromagnetic system that eliminates the need for a wireline – a known point of failure – for guidance. From a health, safety and environmental standpoint, a wireless system means one less person near the drill pipe needing to make splices.
The Keys to Success
While the customers are important to Vector Magnetics’ success, so too are its employees.
“We really try to do right by our staff. We have a low turnover rate. We have employees Nos. 1 and 2 still working here. Most people have stuck around,” says Mohler. “We try to provide a challenging and engaging workplace that, I think, supports exploration and new ideas.”
One theme that carries over to everything Vector Magnetics does is the idea of treating people as you would want to be treated. Mohler refers to it as the company’s “secret sauce.”
“I have a lot of pride in working with the people who are here and our distributor partners. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s something I look forward to every day when I come into the office,” Mohler says. “The people that I work with, and the things that we are doing, are just interesting. We are all very different people, but we all have this common thread that we are all striving for something better and that’s exciting.”
As for Kuckes, he has stepped back from being involved in the day-to-day operations at Vector Magnetics, however, Mohler points out that he is the hardest-working retired person that he knows. Kuckes is known to come to the office with new ideas and offer improvements to current systems. He also leads by example, developing a reputation for philanthropy in the community. In 2008, he made a $2 million contribution to Tompkins-Cortland Community College to fund a scholarship program for adults struggling to afford college. In 2018, he helped fund the construction of a new childcare facility at the same college.
“Dr. Kuckes continues to inspire our team today with his undying love of learning and research,” says Mohler.