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The future of HDD: Daunting, thrilling, and important

Rodney O’Meley, Maxibor Australia’s Owner and CEO.

Rodney O’Meley, CEO and owner of Maxibor Australia – one of the country’s leading horizontal directional drilling (HDD) design and delivery companies – speaks to Trenchless Australasia to provide insight into the challenges and future direction of HDD in the Australian infrastructure sector.

Rodney O’Meley has first-hand experience of the many challenges which the HDD industry has faced, and subsequently solved, since the first rods turned in Australia in the 1990s. 

“The industry challenges ahead are different now, and the future of the industry and broader infrastructure sector will be daunting, thrilling and important,” he says. 

O’Meley believes that the most formidable near-future challenges for HDD operators will revolve around the accelerating pace of climate change and the impact it will have on infrastructure assets, both existing and new. Local and global economic and political factors are also adding to the challenges.

Maxibor has been highlighting that HDD is an important part of climate change adaptation for the past few years. The company believes that the industry has a role to play in mitigating the increasing frequency and impact of fires, high winds, floods, drought, and rain bombs. 

“The impact of climate change is accelerating faster than expected, becoming increasingly extreme. Simultaneous disasters in multiple locations continues to stretch the ability of infrastructure asset owners, emergency services personnel, and other resources to respond to these events in a timely and effective manner,” O’Meley says.

“Having key infrastructure, such as electricity and telecommunications, underground in times of extreme and frequent climate change-induced events provides greater certainty in terms of supply by keeping them safely away from the above-ground impact of extreme weather events.”

The extent of flood events is also causing decision makers to rethink the management of water resources. O’Meley says that several populated, higher risk areas have become uninsurable and, in some cases, uninhabitable. 

 “This means more innovative design for longer and larger diameter pipelines to better control never-before-seen stormwater and flooding flows,” he says.

The Albanese Labor Government has increased the focus on the transition from fossil fuels game through enshrining in legislation Australia’s emissions reduction target of 43 per cent and net zero emissions by 2050. According to O’Meley, the transmission process is being complemented by reasonably aggressive emissions reduction targets for the top 215 high emitting facilities from 1 July 2023. 

“Early investment responses will be required by the mining and manufacturing sectors as the cost of inaction will outweigh the cost of adaptive action. This will place further strain on existing civil construction resources to help meet these reductions,” he says.

“The availability of government and private sector funding for projects to generate affordable renewable energy will create added demand for pipeline construction resources as new projects around solar, wind, hydrogen and pumped hydro come on board.”

He also says that the transition period will see new pipelines required for the new natural gas projects. 

O’Meley predicts that the pressure to accelerate the energy transition will result in higher demand for HDD resources, along with other trenchless solutions – including micro-tunnelling and tunnel boring machines (TBMs) – throughout the decade.

“An already under-resourced civil construction sector is still adjusting to the built-up demand for resources due to projects delayed by COVID-19. Migration of skilled workers to Australia is unlikely to reach previous levels as there is a world-wide demand for skilled labour. Disrupted supply chains, rising inflation and cost of finance are all impacting access to materials and capital for projects and new equipment.”

Increasing demand for trenchless resources is not limited to Australia. O’Meley says that other countries also require new sources of energy to be established as part of their commitment to renewables. Where there is geo-political disruption, such as in Europe, security of supply is also an issue and alternative supply routes are being sought.

The international demand for trenchless resources is taking already-scarce HDD labour and plant resources away from Australia, further reducing the capacity of the local industry to deliver.  

While the picture ahead is daunting, O’Meley assures that it also creates thrilling opportunities for the HDD industry. The charged physical environment means that HDD design engineers are being able to innovatively respond to the infrastructure challenges being faced. 

“The design of HDD solutions needs to accommodate longer and larger diameter bores. HDD design, engineering and project delivery experience on these more complex bores is essential if the designs are to be constructable and the pipelines successfully installed,” he says.

“Maxibor is very fortunate in having access to design experience on long, large diameter bore projects. This knowledge is something the Australian infrastructure industry needs to take advantage of to facilitate more innovative trenchless solutions that can be applied to increasingly complex infrastructure challenges.”

Alex Tao, the Australian and New Zealand representative of China Railway Construction Heavy Industry Corporation Limited (CRCHI), says that the technology for underground construction has advanced significantly in the past decade, making it much more cost effective to use HDD, micro-tunnelling and TBMs in any geology.

“Knowledge transfer into the Australian market is important with regards to the newer technologies such as microtunnelling and TBMs. Here it is important that there are good relationships across the supply chain from manufacturers like CRCHI through to design and construct providers, principal contractors and infrastructure asset owners,” he says.

Maxibor’s Gallagher 660e Maxi-rig, AKA ‘The Hulk’.
Maxibor’s Gallagher 660e Maxi-rig, AKA ‘The Hulk’.

It is important that there is wider community benefit arising from the procurement process around major infrastructure projects. Something that, O’Meley says, requires asset owners to drive a project procurement process which is responsive to community benefit factors, including local content, diversity, social enterprises, knowledge transfer and training.  

The involvement of Australian owned companies in the delivery of the solutions is even more important in the changed international circumstances. 

An important part of the knowledge transfer process is training. Skill improvement in longer, wider and more technologically advanced underground infrastructure installation solutions requires training for current operators and newcomers to the industry. It also important that there is diversity in the training process so that a wider cross-section of the community can benefit from the knowledge transfer and skills build up. 

“Maxibor is proactively seeking out collaborative arrangements with various stakeholders across the supply chain to help optimise outcomes. People and organisations working cooperatively will build respect, relationship and achieve a much better response,” O’Meley says.

As part of Maxibor’s contribution to emissions reduction, it has invested in a full electric HDD Gallagher maxi-rig spread. Known as ‘The Hulk’, the rig is capable of drilling over 3000 m and up to 1.6 m diameter bores in all ground conditions including extremely hard rock. 

Electric HDD technology uses an integrated electric power system that optimises efficiency of the drill rig, pumps and fluid management systems during operations. When connected to the electricity grid, the system operates as a fuel-free system with lower noise and provides an overall smaller spread footprint.

The electric spread is supported by electricity driven Gardner Denver PZ9 pumps and a cleaning system with high flow capacity, making it ideal for long, large diameter infrastructure installation projects – especially where there are environmental and community sensitivities at stake.  

The electric HDD spread solution also provides an opportunity for immediate reductions to the high emissions operations in the coal mining and gas industries, assisting their gas extraction and dewatering activities and help meet their increasing emissions reduction targets.

“Being part of the solution in overcoming the challenges ahead is important to Maxibor. We can achieve the desired outcomes by working in a cooperative way to build a future we all look forward to,” says O’Meley.

For more information visit Maxibor.

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This article appeared in the February edition of Trenchless Australasia. Access the digital copy of the magazine here.

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