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

The future of HDD: Daunting, thrilling, and important

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.

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Investing in learning opportunities to give customers tools to nurture skills: Michels

When horizontal directional drilling (HDD) emerged in the mid-1960s as a new way to install utility lines under immovable or unavoidable obstacles without significant surface disruptions, crossings spanned up to a few hundred feet guided by frequent potholing. That changed in 1971 when a 4-inch gas line was placed under a river in Watsonville, CA, USA, a location where potholing would not be possible.

At about that same time, Michels was growing its utility line construction business in the Midwestern United States. Driven to meet customer needs and offer specialised services, the company expanded its geographic footprint and markets served. 

Today, Michels is an international, diversified energy and infrastructure contractor and leading provider of construction services to the energy, transportation, communications, power and utility industries. 

In 2021, Michels added Michels Asia Pacific, a permanent trenchless operation in Wangaratta, Victoria, to the Michels Family of companies. Michels Asia Pacific selectively specialises in technically challenging trenchless installations in Australia to allow customers to provide reliable, unobtrusive service in metropolitan and remote areas. 

The team consists of Wangaratta-based project management and field staff supported from industry experts at Michels’ headquarters in Brownsville, WI, USA.

Flash back nearly 35 years to 1988 when Michels was one of the first contractors to recognize the potential of the new technology of HDD, a safe, environmentally sound way to install utility lines where traditional open-trench construction would not be practical or feasible. 

Intrigued by HDD’s prospect of allowing energy and infrastructure construction in previously unsuitable areas and soil conditions, Michels dedicated personnel and resources to learning about the technique and introducing it to customers. 

In keeping with Michels’ spirit of innovation and determination to provide customers with the best solutions, Michels set out to master the art and science of HDD. As the operations team completed HDD projects for energy customers, Michels in-house design and fabrication team got to work developing its own equipment to provide more opportunities than commercially available products at the time. 

In 1996, Michels designed and built what was then the largest machine of its kind: the Hercules 1200, a HDD rig with 1.2 million pounds of thrust/pulling power. Not content to stop with one success, Michels continued to improve and expand its HDD equipment, eventually owning the world’s largest fleet of high-capacity HDD rigs with more than 1.2 million pounds of thrust/pulling power. 

At the same time, the Michels team developed best practices for mitigating the risk of inadvertent fluid returns, managing bentonite and drilling fluid pressures for proper hole conditions, lubrication and cutting removal. 

Michels also developed proprietary cutting tools and casing systems to maximize the potential for successful crossings and established processes for land-to-land, water-to-water, land-to-water projects. 

As HDD’s reputation as a safe, accurate option for trenchless crossings grew, so did requests for longer and larger diameter crossings under transportation corridors, waterways, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive or challenging areas. 

As lengths extended into the thousands of feet, Michels Trenchless team pioneered the pilot hole intersect method in a 2003 crossing in Boston. A powerful drill rig set out from each side of the alignment with a mission to follow an engineered path and meet at a predetermined spot, essentially doubling an HDD’s potential based solely on the drill rig’s push/pull capacity. 

The Georges Island HDD crossing was a 1577 m hard-rock, water-to-water crossing to install 30-inch diameter pipe.

That technique was a watershed moment in the HDD industry. In passing years, demands for increasingly longer crossings with more complex alignments surfaced around the world from diverse industries, including energy, electrical transmission, water and wastewater and renewables. 

In 2021, Michels completed a 4702 m installation of an NPS-24 steel utility line, the likes of which had not previously been attempted at the 24-inch diameter in the world. 

Looking to the future, Michels is committed to building infrastructure to support projects in traditional and emerging industries and to continue providing safe, proven and innovative solutions to customers in Australia and wherever needed.

“In Australia, North America and throughout the world, there is an ever-increasing need for obstacles to be trenchlessly crossed, particularly in a time when there is a very real need for expanded infrastructure for traditional and transitioning markets,” said Matt Smith, President, Michels Trenchless, Inc. “We are honoured to have the skills, expertise, equipment and opportunity to deliver solutions that will build the future.”

For more information visit Michels’ website.


This article appeared in the August edition of Trenchless Australasia

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