Steady as she goes is probably the best way to sum up the compact directional drill market, according to those who specialize in the machines, commonly used for fiber-to-the-home and other curb-to-home utility installations.
When Trenchless Technology last looked at the state of the market for this sub group of horizontal directional drills (HDD) in 2010, the market was showing signs of improvement from the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. According to that story, 2005 and 2006 were strong years but the housing bust and the downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009 were weaker.
“I would say the industry and the market as a whole is steady,” said Jon Kuyers, global product manager for Vermeer Corp. “We have not seen, as of yet, any downturn or any major crashes like we saw back during the contraction of the housing and telecom markets.” The Pella, Iowa-based company has four compact rigs on the market, the D6X6, the recently introduced D9X13 S3, the D16X20 Series II and the D20X22 Series II Tier 4i.
Likewise, Seth Matthesen, HDD product manager for Ditch Witch, said the compact rig market has been stable, buoyed by an influx of Rural Underground Service (RUS) funding, which provides grants, loans and loan guarantees to electricity, telecommunications and water utilities in rural areas.
Matthesen says that many of those projects are complete, but the work did keep contractors busy and helped to weather the dip in the economy that other construction sectors felt.
“That, in itself, kept this market stable,” he said. “We haven’t seen a huge increase.”
With the large-scale jobs, runs of 50,000 to 100,000 ft, Matthesen says contractors are performing maintenance work for the majority of their contracts and the compact HDD rigs are better suited to those jobs.
Perry, Okla.-based Ditch Witch has four rigs available in the compact rig marketplace, the JT5, JT922, JT1220 and the JT20. Those machines, Matthesen said fill different niches, with the JT5 and JT922 doing more curb-to-house, backyard and alley work and the JT20 and 1220 handling the longer projects.
New to the game is The Toro Co., which acquired the assets of Astec Underground in 2012 and is now selling two of its drills, a DD2024 compact directional drill and a larger DD4045, both of which debuted at the 2013 ICUEE show.
Joshua Beddow, Toro marketing manager for underground, said the company’s market data ranges for drills in the 0 to 50,000-lb category and indicates that there was a large increase from 2009-2012, with most of the rebound happening from 2011-2012.
As for 2013, he said it was too soon to tell how the year would end but thus far, the numbers were flat when compared to 2012. He attributed much of that to buyers flocking to purchase the remaining Tier3 products in advance of the roll out of more pricey Tier4-compliant rigs.
“I would say our outlook on the compact category is pretty positive as construction recovers and as people, not just in North America but in emerging markets as well, require more of these utilities that we take for granted in the United States,” Beddow said.
All three manufacturers see room for growth as municipalities and utility companies look to upgrade or repair the current infrastructure. As the compact HDD market evolved and people became more educated with the uses, these rigs began to be favored for work in densely populated areas over trenchers and vibratory plows.
“Where a plow might have been an effective tool for a service installation, it’s more difficult to use something like that when you have obstructions to get around or underneath,” Kuyers said. He added that using a compact HDD drill is faster, more efficient and restoration time is cut down compared to other methods. Increased efficiency and speed helped the market grow and Matthesen expanded on this idea.
“Typically, the easements are so crowded now, it’s nearly impossible to just run a trencher or plow through the ground.”
This crowding, he says, lends itself to contractors using drills to do their jobs vs. a more traditional method. It also led to the advancement of features on current TK systems on Ditch Witch rigs.
“As the infrastructure gets more and more crowded in easements, a big issue not only from the HDD side, but the whole jobsite side is obstacle avoidance,” Matthesen said. He added that 20 years ago a contractor could go in, level off at 5 to 6 ft and just drill.
Today, contractors need to go in and pothole for utilities and that takes precious time.
“When the drill stem isn’t turning, the customer is not making money,” Matthesen said. “Having that ability to go out there and be more efficient on the jobsite is key.”
Packing in the utilities has also transformed the rigs themselves. What were once umbilical setups are now self-contained and, in some instances, get to the jobsite using a pickup and a trailer, which does not require a CDL operator.
The rigs today are all self-contained with the engine, mud pump, stake-down system integrated into the machine, lending to the smaller footprint.
In terms of what contractors are looking for in a new rig, that has not changed much in recent years. Kuyers says it is all about productivity, reliability, ease of operation and a good return on the investment.
Hence, the improvements to its D9X13, which included better carriage, rotation and transport speed and an improved cycle time for the vice so rods can be changed out faster, allowing bores to be completed more quickly.
For a company that is new to the HDD market, many of the changes Toro made to the DD2024 involved the new Tier4i engine and converting to production at the company’s Tomah, Wis. factory. The latter also involves the commonizing of parts and processes.
“I think what’s really driving a lot of their purchase decisions is looking at an optimal intersection of several different features that will help them do their job more productively, at a lower cost,” Beddow said.
“We want to have a rig that is really hitting the optimal points or the optimal specifications not necessarily the rig with the most thrust or the most horsepower, but the rig that is overall well-balanced across several key features.”
The changes made to compact rigs from 10 to 20 years ago to today and looking forward, Beddow says is somewhat analogous to changes that were made in the computer industry. The chips today are smaller and pack more data and speed than chips 10 years ago.
That will continue as will the compact HDD rig manufacturer’s quest to make their respective machines more efficient and productive as possible.
Mike Kezdi is assistant editor for Trenchless Technology.