The high demand for moving infrastructure underground, including natural gas, electric, and renewables to water, sewer, and high-speed internet, is showing no signs of slowing. There’s a growing need for cutting-edge horizontal direction drilling equipment that can efficiently work in a variety of challenging conditions.
“Utility contractors need better, simpler, and faster ways to put more product in the ground and more profit in their pockets,” says Jeff Davis, HDD Product Manager at Ditch Witch.
Increasing support for environmental stewardship is also driving interest in the trenchless industry. Society requires infrastructure to be installed in a way that minimizes impact on the population.
“Whether installing high-speed internet, hardening electrical infrastructure, or connecting renewables like off-shore wind and solar into the energy matrix, the strong need for underground utility is driving innovation,” adds Andy Bremner, External Sales Manager - Pipeline at Vermeer.
Boosting versatility and efficiency
There is no single directional drill that can do everything. As Bremner explains, projects like natural gas and water/sewer typically require a larger drill in the 40,000-lb. class or above. Fiber-to-home projects can utilize a smaller drill in the 20,000-lb. class.
Equipment versatility helps contractors maximize productivity. For instance, Vermeer’s D220x500 S3 is available in multiple configurations to help the contractor adapt the machine to the environment it will be working in.
Another Vermeer innovation is the Ultra X3 Drilling System for utility-sized rigs in the 10,000- to 40,000-lb. range. Designed with a non-torqued spline connection system, it offers compatibility with a range of pilot bit and pullback configurations. Contractors can swap out tooling quickly with two knock-out dowel pins. This system is also capable of reaming directly from the transmitter housing, allowing for the elimination of starter rods and adapters in certain applications.
To help drive drill versatility and contractor efficiency, Ditch Witch has been beefing up its offering of all-terrain directional drills that can bore in not only soils but also rock. Ditch Witch’s all-terrain technology is based on a dual-pipe system originally developed more than 20 years ago. “Even when those patents expired, we have continued to develop new technologies to make all-terrain drilling even better and more efficient,” Davis says.
In 2021, Ditch Witch introduced a new all-terrain model, the AT32 (see above image). It was based on the company’s original all-terrain HDD, the AT2720. Several enhancements were made, including updates to the dual-pipe system itself. “We’ve been trying new ways to make our dual-pipe housings better and friendlier to use,” Davis says. “Our SwitchBack housing system allows the operator to drill into a very small pit, take the head off of the housing and connect a swivel to it, grab the product and immediately start pulling back.
“In the past, the operator didn’t have a way to pull back with a dual-pipe housing,” Davis continues. “The operator had to either dig a larger pit or completely surface out of the ground before using these big mechanical tongs to remove the housing. But today, especially in the world of fiber installation where speed is critical, that old way of doing things isn’t efficient enough. That’s why we designed the SwitchBack system. It allows contractors to drill through rock in urban areas, create less ground disturbance in the process, and do it all a lot faster thanks to the quick-disconnect system.”
Reducing environmental impact
HDD manufacturers have also innovated in ways that help utility contractors reduce their carbon footprint. Keeping pace with current engine emissions regulations is an obvious example. Taking steps to reduce noise output is another. However, the means to those ends can vary.
“Ultimately, utility contractors are striving to be less invasive while on projects,” Vermeer’s Bremner says. This is an even bigger focus in Europe which is why electric equipment is becoming more common there. “They need to be more sustainable and less invasive in the eyes of society, and these ideals are coming to the U.S.,” Bremner adds.
That’s not to say electric will replace diesel altogether, Bremner points out. Each will have its place. And when it comes to diesel-powered directional drills, manufacturers like Vermeer have already been taking steps to help contractors reduce carbon footprint by making equipment more productive.
“When you look at some of these large projects across long distances with larger diameters, the contractor could end up having to make four or five ream passes,” Bremner points out. “If a more productive drill can allow the contractor to get it in just two passes, even if the engine is working a lot harder, that reduces impact because the contractor isn’t on the job nearly as long.”
The innovation comes into play with respect to hole-boring capability.
“Efficiently drilling a great hole comes down to rotary torque and mudflow,” Bremner points out. “Top-end torque seems exciting, but it’s the torque at speed that supports increased production during the reaming process. It’s not just about having 130,000 ft.-lbs. of torque. It’s about having the ability to turn those cutters at not only a higher torque but also at the right rpm, in combination with the ability to facilitate a higher mudflow.”
With that objective in mind, Vermeer’s latest HDD model, the D550, features several innovations, one of which relates to the hydrostatic transmission. “When you think about hydraulics, volume is good while pressure is bad,” Bremner says. “The design of the rotation circuit on our D550 not only allows the drill to gain incremental rotary power but does so while keeping system pressures minimal.”
Ease of operation
At a time of unprecedented labor challenges, HDD manufacturers have also been innovating in the areas of creature comfort and ease of operation.
Operator controls have been a focal point. When a utility contractor begins growing and taking on new types of work, they often need to jump up to a larger drill. That can be a challenge when the contractor’s employees are not familiar with the controls on a larger machine. HDD manufacturers have been working to close that gap.
For example, Ditch Witch has focused on developing a single platform that is virtually universal from machine to machine. “Then an operator can move freely from one drilling machine to the next without having to undergo a painstaking training session each time,” Davis points out.
“The control platform on Vermeer’s newest drill, the 550,000-lb. D550, is very similar to the controls on our smaller drills,” Bremner adds. “The controls are still dual-joystick and very familiar. We’ve even gone a step further with the D550. If the operator is trying to perform a function but doesn’t execute the proper sequence with the joysticks and buttons, they get a message providing a recommendation to achieve the function. We call these ‘advisories’ because they go above and beyond the typical fault codes operators are alerted to.”
Smart technologies enable smarter drilling
Things like advisories and fault codes are part of a broader trend toward technology-enabling innovation.
“We look at it as developing smarter drills,” Davis says in reference to the incorporation of telematics into HDDs. “This technology allows the user to diagnose an issue much faster than could be done in the past. That itself is uptime.”
Davis says telematics has been coming on stronger over the past five years in the HDD product category. In fact, HDD telematics can assist contractors with more than just engine diagnostic information and maintenance reminders. Davis refers to it as having “information centers” in the cab.
“In the past, we utilized much smaller displays because we had much less information to offer,” Davis says. “Now, with advancements in CAN bus technology, we have multiple 7-inch displays to help the operator monitor all performance-driving parameters. Telematics can also help operators monitor machine utilization and duty cycles on engines and hydraulic functions. With HDD jobsites becoming smarter, this type of information is being demanded to verify ROI and machine performance.”
“Utility contractors also want machines that can facilitate more data capture,” Bremner says. Vermeer’s D550, for instance, features onboard diagnostics to provide operators and technicians with important diagnostics information. It will also provide fault codes to remote dealer personnel for a more proactive approach to fleet management.
Vermeer’s D550 also features ultra-slow speed technology which allows operators to manage weight-on-bit pressure for optimal cutting action and maximum tooling life. “It’s very important to be able to fine-tune the cutter engagement with the face of that rock,” Bremner says.
Subscribe to The Utility Expo monthly newsletter to receive more industry insights like this.
Video: Vermeer’s New D550 HDD Brings 100,000 Foot-Pounds of Torque