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Designing the first HDD rigs

Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) rigs are widely used on transmission pipeline projects efficiently and economically to complete river and road crossings, and traverse environmentally sensitive areas with the lowest impact. But how did the technology develop? Pipelines International speaks to representatives from Vermeer, American Augers and Ditch Witch to learn more about how each company developed its first HDD rig.


Jim Rankin, Application Engineer

Jim Rankin is one of the most well-known individuals in the HDD industry. His career within Vermeer spans an impressive 38 years, and one of Jim’s many accolades includes being instrumental in the development of Vermeer’s directional drills, including the company’s first commercially marketed drilling equipment.

Mr Rankin says “In the very beginning,
I remember being pulled into my manager’s office and asked if I knew or had ever heard of a term or technology called ‘directional drilling’, which
I hadn’t.

“He said, ‘Well, I don’t know a lot about it either, but I want you to book a ticket to Charlotte, North Carolina, meet up with the local Vermeer Dealer, and watch a unit in operation that’s been manufactured by a company that’s just starting to make a move into this industry’.”

Protecting hospital power

Mr Rankin recounts that the trip was right after hurricane Hugo had hit the Charlotte area and the storm had taken down several overhead powerlines at a nearby hospital. The directional drilling project involved moving powerlines underground to reduce any future loss of power to the facility. This required the installation of a 42 m power conduit underneath the hospital’s emergency entrance bay.

As one would imagine, shutting down the driveway to break up the concrete, dig a trench, bury the conduit, compact the soil back, and replace the concrete wasn’t a viable option; the time for the concrete to set before reopening the drive would be days, and emergency vehicles would have to be rerouted to another hospital entrance point, or even another hospital, adding more time to a possible life-and-death situation.

“At that time,” said Mr Rankin, “It took the better part of two days to do this 42 m bore. Compared to today’s standards, we would have been sacked and sent back to running a shovel. But the flow of traffic to the emergency entrance wasn’t interfered with.

“Back then we didn’t have the luxuries there are today like a seat, rod loaders, cabins, and self-propelled machines. Drill racks were manually manoeuvred into place, every drill stem was manually carried to the rack, and you can’t forget laying down the earthing matts and driving the stakes down with a sledge hammer!

“There are a lot of operators out there now that don’t realise the work that was involved in the whole operation back then.”

Uncertain beginnings

Mr Rankin says he came back from that project not totally convinced of the technology, and wondering if he wanted to take the lead on a project to commercialise the technology.

At the time, Vermeer had very modest plans for the success of the new technology.

“Well into the project, I remember asking my manager how many units he thought Vermeer would sell per year so we could leverage price breaks,” says Mr Rankin.

“He said if we built and sold 10 complete units a year he would be thrilled and amazed. He believed Vermeer was a company building trenchers nobody was going to shut down their trencher and follow.”

In present day, the original factory floor at Pella, Iowa, where these first units were developed, has seen two big changes during Mr Rankin’s tenure. One is the early prediction of 10 units per year being quickly surpassed, resulting in an urgent need for more floor space to manufacture drills. The second is Vermeer implementing and practicing ‘lean manufacturing’ in order to be able to produce the ever-increasing volume
of drills.

Reflecting on that initial predication of 10 units, Mr Rankin said “Wow! Kind of hit that ball out of the ball park!”

Looking to the future

Improving and innovating with equipment, for Vermeer, is core to the company’s philosophy.

“If Henry Ford would have viewed his first car as ‘this is it’, we wouldn’t be riding around in the luxurious vehicles we enjoy today!” says Mr Rankin.

“Gary Vermeer, the founder of Vermeer said ‘find a better way and build the best’. I truly believe when I pull the boots on every day that there is a better way things can be done. That doesn’t mean I’ll find that way, but if you put your mind to it you can improve on everything.

“You always hope and want to believe that history and experience helps an engineer make new advances. Part of the challenge is being able to transfer that history and experience in going forward,” says Mr Rankin.

Vermeer is a company that keeps innovating, and one area that is becoming a focus for the drilling industry is environmentally conscious technology. The company has been making innovative developments with its fluid reclaimers, an area in which Mr Rankin has been heavily involved in recent years.

“This is an area that has big opportunities at many different levels and for many different reasons. The biggest reason, like directional drilling itself, is that it is ‘green technology’ and that is important to me.”

Dr Kelvin Self, Research & Development Project Manager

The road to developing Ditch Witch’s first HDD rig began with the company’s first commercial service-line trencher, which was created in 1949 by trenchless industry pioneer and Ditch Witch founder Ed Malzahn. While the trencher represented a major advancement for the installation of small pipe and cable in urban environments, it still faced one major jobsite challenge: like all open-cut excavations, the technology required major construction work to cross obstacles.

Dr Self says “There were many situations where the open-cut method was too difficult, too expensive, or too disruptive to be a sufficient solution for all underground applications. Case in point: prior to HDD technology, a simple road crossing often resulted in road closure, tearing up the concrete to excavate, and then fully rebuilding the road – taking several days to complete.

“For even a small river crossing, the flow would be diverted by building a cofferdam and excavating in the muck and mud; repeating the same process for the next area of the river, taking many days or sometimes weeks to cross.”

Because of this inconvenience, the industry moved to innovate, with many working on different types of technologies to help solve the problem.

“As with most technical innovations, various types of separate technologies needed piecing together to develop an effective solution. Early contractors – including Martin Cherrington and later Flow Mole, among others – created functional machines to combat these challenges; however, the machines generally lacked key elements of modern HDD rigs, which stunted their effectiveness.”

Many at Ditch Witch were also conducting research to find effective trenchless solutions to HDD challenges. Dr Gerald Stangl and Roger Layne, who have now both retired, were key personalities to this early research and development.

Around the mid-to-late 1980s, Dr Stangl and Dr Layne learned of another contractor-inventor who possibly held another piece of the HDD technology puzzle. The two men travelled to meet with Richard Dunn, a gentleman who had invented a small boring machine with a crucial piece of technology.

“After watching the machine run, the Ditch Witch organisation eventually purchased the intellectual property for what is now known as the slant-faced method of boring,” Dr Self says.

A new slant on HDD

Slant-face technology was first used to install small-scale pipes and cables using a fluid-assisted boring unit. The technology breakthrough was patented by Mr Dunn and recognised as US patent 4953638 in 1988. The technology was a breakthrough for the industry; a significant improvement on the techniques that preceded it. However, there was still one major problem with the slant-faced boring machine: it wasn’t trackable.

“Ditch Witch married the slant-face technology with the locating sonde technology that was already being used in other Ditch Witch trenchless products,” says Dr Self.

“This was the birth of the first Jet Trac, a utility class HDD rig manufactured in Perry, Oklahoma, at the Ditch Witch facility. The unit was sold worldwide through Ditch Witch dealerships from 1990 onwards. Though crude by today’s standards, in many ways the newly designed drill unit functioned similarly to HDD boring systems that are still being used today.”

Where to from here?

The first HDD units were designed to install pipe and cable in areas where trenching was difficult or impossible. In good soil conditions, the first HDD units were capable of installing small pipe and cable up to a few hundred metres.

“The early HDD units were difficult to use successfully and very labour intensive,” says Dr Self. “They often failed to complete the bore the first time. So when first introduced, many thought the machines would only be a small niche in the industry.”

However, over the years HDD units have grown in size and capabilities. Today they are commonly used to quickly and efficiently install underground product ranging from a small cable TV across a backyard to a 36 inch pipeline over a kilometre in length or more. Modern-day units are commonly used to bore through all kinds of soil, from soft topsoil to extremely hard rock and cobble.

Overall, it took nearly four decades after Mr Malzahn’s invention of the service-line trencher before the creation of an efficient trenchless boring machine with all the key elements of a modern HDD unit.

Tracking company growth

Ditch Witch has a long history as a global company; even though the manufacturing plant has always been based in Oklahoma, the dealership network was spread across the globe long before the advent of HDD.

Ditch Witch has seen significant growth and changes since the introduction of HDD in the late 1980s. The manufacturing site has grown substantially, allowing for the production of HDD rigs, followed by drill pipe, downhole tools, fluid systems, and vacuum excavation systems.

In addition to this, since 1991, Ditch Witch has put significant energy into developing electronics to support HDD tracking applications and downhole tooling to support Ditch Witch products. This business is now known as Subsite Electronics, a stand-alone company supporting underground construction with a suite of electronics products. Ditch Witch has also continued to expand its training facility and courses, with many thousands of HDD operators and service personnel trained at the site since the first Jet Trac.

Richard Levings, Director of Product Development

“American Augers’ first commercially marketed drilling equipment was developed in 1998 for several large customers, some of which are the world’s largest HDD contractors today,” says Mr Levings.

The machine in question was a trailer-mounted, rack-and-pinion drive drilling unit that had approximately 176 tonnes of pullback power. The rig was developed for the installation of oil and gas pipelines under rivers and interstate highways in the United States. One of the first projects on which the unit was used was the installation of a 36 inch gas pipeline under the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

After successful applications in the oil and gas industry, American Augers’ drilling units were quickly adopted for the placement of fibre optic cables. Once the technology was proven on a variety of installation types, the rate of applications grew rapidly.

“Frank Vestfall, Biyue Li, and Jim Firmin were all key to the development of American Augers’ first drilling rigs. They each worked directly with prospective customers to develop the early specifications and new design concepts to meet the needs of individual projects,” says
Mr Levings.

Ohio manufacturing goes global

American Augers’ first rigs were manufactured near Wooster, Ohio. They were often built to meet individual project specifications before being sold directly to contractors. It wasn’t long before American Augers became a worldwide manufacturer of maxi-HDD systems and set up processes to service its units across the globe.

Today American Augers has evolved into a world-class provider of pipeline construction equipment. The company still has a manufacturing site located just outside of West Salem, Ohio, and utilises the latest manufacturing equipment and techniques to produce
maxi-HDD rigs.

As a global company, American Augers has been able to observe differences in project specifications and requirements across the world.

Mr Levings says “Some of the major differences we’ve seen include package size, configuration and price differences; and, variations in environmental regulations and standards, and health and safety requirements.

“These country-to-country differences present many challenges to the American Augers’ product line, and require the company to be consistently flexible with its manufacturing processes.”

The times, they are a-changin’

Since it was initially developed, American Augers has seen significant advancements in HDD techniques and technology. This includes improvements in hydraulics and electronics, which have helped to improve performance, as well as the addition of operator interfaces, wrenching devices, rotary systems, and track-mounted carriers to HDD rigs. Despite these changes, the form of units is still very similar to the original designs.

These days, the company manufacturers a range of different HDD rigs. The development of these rigs can vary from a few months to more than a year.

The speed of the development process is mostly driven by the needs of the end user and the process of translating those needs into useful design solutions.

American Augers continues to innovate and push HDD technology forward. With new environmental pressures being placed on end users across the world, the company is being driven to work very closely with the trenchless industry to meet ever-changing equipment requirements and project outcomes.

“As a company, American Augers will continue to seek unique solutions to meet these challenges head on,” says Mr Levings.

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