"May you live in interesting times." It's an old curse that has certainly held true for many people and companies over the last year.
2010 has been a challenging time for the vast majority of the world. The global economic downturn has affected both contractors and manufacturers alike in a manner unseen for decades. Equipment development has certainly suffered as dealers re-allocate research and development budgets to other areas in order to remain solvent. Fortunately, a few new developments have survived the recession to emerge this last year.
Vermeer introduced its new D20x22FX Series II directional drill back in January, which was designed specifically to tackle the newly emerging Geothermal market. These machines are based off of their standard D20x22 drill platforms, but feature a boom capable of drilling from 18° to 90° entry points. Built for vertical and steep angle geothermal loop installations, the D22x22FX also functions as a horizontal directional drill (HDD) that can install horizontal loops and conventional utilities.
At the same time, Vermeer released information on their new line of fluid recycling systems to go hand in hand with their maxi rig lineup. Vermeer's line of large directional drills spans pullback capacities ranging from 330,000 pounds to over 1 million pounds, launching them into an arena previously dominated by only a few other manufacturers. With the need to service the demands of these machines for fluid pumping and recycling, Vermeer launched their new line of recycling systems which is currently seeing the first units delivered to anxious buyers.
The rumor is also out that Ditch Witch is poised to test the first of their new line of maxi-sized directional drills in the coming months. These new machines are the result of an existing partnership between Ditch Witch and Tu Xing Sun No-Dig Tech of Beijing, China. This development is truly pivotal, as its success could open the floodgates to Chinese equipment being accepted in North America as a viable option to compete against locally manufactured equipment. To date, Chinese equipment has met with enormous opposition by contractors due to its reputation of unreliability. Chinese equipment has already found huge purchase in developing countries such as India, and its introduction into North America, particularly as it is backed by a well known name, shall be a very interesting development to watch in the coming months.
Ditch Witch also surprised the entire industry when it acquired the Earth Tool Company and its Hammerhead product line in April. Earth Tool was formerly strongly allied with Vermeer Manufacturing. This development basically hamstrung Vermeer's pneumatic downhole tool program, and put Ditch Witch in a very strong position to dominate that market through its well-established dealership network and Hammerhead's proven line of tooling.
Another interesting development in the HDD rig arena is the emerging line of drilling machines manufactured by Universal HDD based out of Lake Zurich, IL. While it is too early to say exactly how well these units will hold up under demanding drilling conditions for the long term, short term results seem to show that the Universal lineup is holding its own, particularly when taking into account their lower pricing versus more well known brands of HDD rigs. Contrary to the trend of the larger manufacturers, Universal HDD has taken a different approach to building rigs, and that is to build them simple and build them cheap. While a new drill from the major manufacturers may feature such wonderful options as automatic rod loading, infinitely variable torque, or wireless accessibility for diagnostics, Universal has elected to build their machines with simple electric over hydraulic construction with a minimum suite of sensors and no low voltage electronics to malfunction at the jobsite. Again, the ultimate reliability of the machines is yet to be put to the test and only time will truly tell how well they hold up in the long run.
There is an interesting tendency within the industry in the tooling front as well. Hard rock drilling has always been a lucrative, if chancy subsection of HDD Drilling. In the past there were two main drilling methods used to tackle hard rock, those being mud motors and the well-established Ditch Witch AT rock drilling system. Mud motors require large output pumps and recycling systems capable of processing the larger volume of spoils, while the AT system uses proprietary pipe and specific AT-capable drilling rigs. Both options are costly. A newly emerging trend for hard rock drilling involves the use of pneumatic air hammers. The technology has been out for a long time, however it is not until recently that pneumatic downhole hammers have seen more widespread use, due in part to many well-known manufacturers accepting the technology and offering it along with their machines. These systems require only the rental or purchase of a large capacity air compressor, something that is easily rented and readily available all over the world. Pneumatic systems have equivalent or superior penetration in pure hard rock conditions, but do fall short when going through softer formations or in mixed soils.
The coming years will be interesting ones to watch. Of particular interest to most contractors will be the development of new technologies incorporated into HDD Drills, or perhaps the simplification of the same drill platforms to compete with potential international competitors in the marketplace. At any rate, it can be stated with certainty that HDD Drills will continue to evolve to satisfy the needs and wants of the marketplace. China is emerging as a potentially huge competitor in this arena like so many others it's already entered. The quality of their products is increasing in order to fill the needs of international buyers, and while the pricing is certainly cheaper for now, there will come a point where quality and cost will even out. Whether that point is one that still allows the current major players to compete in a competitive manner is yet to be seen, but you can be certain that just like their equipment, these manufacturers themselves are destined to evolve as well.