From the magazine

The origins of HDD

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.

Speaking on the task that changed the industry, Jim 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, NC, 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

Jim recounts that the trip was right after hurricane Hugo had hit the Charlotte area, and the storm had taken down the overhead power-lines.

The intent of the job was to start undergrounding power lines to reduce future loss of power to a hospital.

The project required installing a shot of a 42 m long 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 maneuvered into place, every drill stem was manually carried to the rack, and you can’t forget laying down the earthing mats and driving the stakes down with a sledge hammer!

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

Uncertain beginnings

Jim 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.

To add to the uncertainty, his manager also said he wasn’t fully convinced of the technology either, but was told that Vermeer was pursuing the venture.

When you’re doing any form of design project, the cost of the product is always an important item to track.

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,” said Jim.

“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 the present day, the original factory floor at Pella, where these first units were developed, has seen two big changes during Jim’s tenure.

One would be 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 would be Vermeer implementing and practising “÷lean manufacturing’, in order to be able to produce the ever-increasing volume of drills.

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

On the fast track

For Vermeer these days, the general ethos for trenchless product development from conception through to completion is to bring products to market as quickly as possible, without sacrificing quality of design and engineering.

Mr Rankin says the team follow Gary Vermeer’s philosophy (and indeed, legacy) to “find a need. Fill that need with a product built to last. And simply build the best”.

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

“If Henry Ford had viewed his first car as “÷this is it’, we wouldn’t be riding around in the luxurious vehicles we enjoy today!” said Jim.

“The founder of Vermeer said “÷find a better way and build the best’. I truly believe when I pull the boots on every day 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.

“The point is you can use proven ways but they all can be advanced, and when you do this you’re going to discover a new weakness. Real field testing can’t be replicated.

“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,” said Jim.

Regional variation

When reflecting if there is much regional differentiation between Vermeer’s global markets, Mr Rankin comments, “Out of all the countries, I truly believe Australians, Canadians and Americans are so much alike. With that, I believe Australians are the most innovative thinkers when it comes to making do with their current situation, making do with what you have at the time!”

“But yes there are definitely regional, country requirements that require better focus. Being schooled in North America, being taught and raised using imperial measurements and working for a North American manufacturer, I believe that if Americans would use the metric system and the world would adopt some common road regulations, machine design and acceptance would be easier.”

Looking to the future

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 huge strides with its fluid reclaimers, an area in which Jim 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!”

Reflecting on future challenges, Jim says “The one that concerns me the most, and I believe everyone else in the industry, is the need to drill in and around existing utilities. To me, advancements in detection, identifying and maneuvering within existing utilities could be the next breakthrough that could rock the HDD industry.”

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