Driving Ditch Witch forward
Trenchless Australasia speaks with Christopher Malan about the history of the Ditch Witch brand in Australasia, his personal association with the company, and the rapid uptake of no-dig methods around the world.
The Ditch Witch brand is synonymous with the Trenchless Technology industry. Ditch Witch Australia and Ditch Witch New Zealand are the Australasian distributors of the world-renowned Ditch Witch brand of construction equipment, providing pre-sales advice, supply of equipment, spare parts and after sales service.
Christopher Malan is the General Manager and Managing Director of both entities, and is now a familiar face for many trenchless professionals across Australasia.
Mr Malan was first introduced to Ditch Witch by a local dealer in Oklahoma, US. At the time, he was completing his university studies. Upon completion of his degree program, he went on to help manage the dealership’s operations.
Reflecting on his entrance into the industry, Mr Malan says, “I had initially planned to be an accountant, but after actually trying my hand at that for a year with a large oil and gas company I discovered that being good at something and being able to dedicate your life to it are two very different things.
“My real passion is for organisational development and change management, which is ultimately what led me to Ditch Witch Australia. I fell in love with the people and they gifted me their love of Ditch Witch and this industry.”
He says the thing that has always attracted him to Ditch Witch, and what makes the company unique, is its commitment to doing the right thing and doing it right ‒ even when it’s not necessarily in the company’s best interests.
“Ed Malzahn, the founder of Ditch Witch, set the pace for the organisation over 60 years ago. He refused to build a machine that wasn’t the best machine he could build at that time and he invested his own identity in the machines so much that he couldn’t ever walk away and leave someone hanging,” says Mr Malan.
“I’m a firm believer that you only live once so you had better do something worthwhile with your time. It’s the Ditch Witch organisation’s commitment to doing the right thing and doing it right that lets me jump out of bed every morning at 4.45am.”
Follow the roots
Ditch Witch Australia recently celebrated its 20th year in the country. However, Mr Malan says the company can trace its roots back much further than that.
“Prior to Ditch Witch Australia, Mole Engineering had been the Ditch Witch dealer in Australia since 1957. In fact, it was the very first Ditch Witch dealer in the world!
“In 1997, the Ditch Witch part of the business was spun off to focus strictly on underground construction. The vast majority of the employees that started with the new enterprise were former Mole Engineering employees. There are seven original employees left with a combined 232 years of Ditch Witch experience.”
Ditch Witch is one of several brands owned by the Charles Machine Works company. As a collective, Charles Machine Works covers most of the major Trenchless Technology categories, from manufacturing utility location to tunnelling machinery.
“Ditch Witch is one of the world’s largest horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and vacuum excavator manufacturers. It’s sister companies Subsite and Hammerhead, are the market leaders in utility locators, HDD guidance, pneumatic piercing tools, rammers, and pipe bursting equipment,” says Mr Malan.
“American Augers, another Charles Machine Works company, is a ‘household name’ in large pipeline drills and auger borers. With the help of Akkerman, a supplier of on grade boring and tunnelling equipment, we are able to supply virtually every machine involved in new trenchless installation or mechanical trenchless rehabilitation.”
Mr Malan says that there have been numerous projects that stand out from his time with Ditch Witch. However, the most memorable project was when he supplied a contractor with a Ditch Witch JT100 directional drill which was used to bore under a bay on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
“The total bore was about 2,000 m in difficult, sandy conditions. Rather than attempt a single shot with a much larger drill, the contractor opted to stitch bore it under the bay.
“The bay is quite shallow – 10-20 m deep – so they sank columns into the bay every few hundred meters, pumped out all of the water, lowered the drill into the bottom of the column, and drilled across to the next column. It was gruelling, complicated work and took about 12 weeks to complete.”
“They had strict timeline requirements due to navigation on the bay and orchestrating all of the moving pieces to make it a successful project. Every time the drill needed servicing they had to lift it out onto a barge and bring it to shore for one of our field service technicians to look after it.
“The project was not without its setbacks, but it was ultimately successful and definitely memorable.”
The rise of no-dig
Mr Malan says that there is no question that trenchless methods have become more popular. He adds that the company is named after the very thing that the Trenchless Technology opposes, ideologically; a sign that the mentality of the underground construction industry has changed.
“When Ditch Witch Australia started 20 years ago, over 90 per cent of our revenue came from trenchers and ploughs. In the most recent financial year that segment accounted for less than four per cent of our revenues,” says Mr Malan.
“In Australia and New Zealand, Trenchless Technology is no longer vying with other technologies. It’s the go to for the preponderance of underground construction in metropolitan areas. Open cut will always be a necessity, but safe vacuum excavation is taking an ever larger chunk of that work too. There was a time when underground congestion drove trenchless demand.
“Today, excessive congestion is actually driving open cut because it’s too congested to even safely bore through. However, advances in precision guidance that will allow absolutely precise boring are just over the horizon.
“With that precision, and possibly to aid it, will come automation. There will come a time when just like self-driving cars, a substantial portion of directional drilling, boring, and even pipe bursting will be robotic, pre-programmed.
“The three to four-man drill crew will become much lonelier, but also much more effective and lower risk. Setup and surveying will become the new primary factor in success, rather than wrangling the controls and tracking.”
This article was featured in the September edition of Trenchless Australasia. To view the magazine on your PC, Mac, tablet, or mobile device, click here.
For more information visit the Ditch Witch website.
If you have a project you would like featured in Trenchless Australasia contact Managing Editor Nick Lovering at firstname.lastname@example.org