A Closer Look Into the Positive and Negative Effects on Trenchless Technology Industry Professionals From Steady HDD Market Growth

By Denise Sullivan
Published: January 18, 2019 | Last updated: July 5, 2023
Key Takeaways

Steady growth in utilities has allowed HDD to continue to gain momentum after the oil and gas drop off in 2016. New technology makes it faster and better than before, but sadly, the lack of trained technicians may cause issues for HDD companies in the future.

Over the last several years, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) companies have enjoyed a steady increase in market shares, despite a slow down in oil and gas projects. This increase in projects has both positively and negatively affected the trenchless technology industry.

Market Shares by Industry

The growth in the use of horizontal directional drilling is due to the boom in underground utility development. While water installation remains the same at 19.9 percent of the HDD market share, gas distribution has ticked up slightly. According to the recent Annual Directional drilling Survey by Underground Construction, they estimate that 2018 will again see an increas in gas distribution line projects, which is expected to account for 18.8 percent of projects up from 18.4 percent in 2017.

Telecommunication Installations

Telecommunication installation estimates show it gowing down slightly to 24.3 percent in 2018, down . One percent from the projects using HDD in 2017. Despite the slight reduction, the sector should continue to see strong growth, as more users take advantage of the reliability that fiber optic connectivity gives.

Electric Grid Installations

Additionally, electric grid installations continue to grow. In 2018, the Annual Survey expects electrical transmission and distribution to make up 13.2 percent of the total HDD market share and is projected to continue steadily for the next five years. Other power generating projects, such as wind and solar applications, only make up two percent of the projects. However, this area may grow as more consumers turn to renewable energy sources.

Oil and Gas Transmission Pipelines

Surprisingly, the oil and gas industry, which used to account for most HDD projects, showed a reduction in percentage, with an expectation of only 9.8 percent of the market in 2018. This reduction is seen in the oil and gas transmission lines not the gas distribution lines, which has increased. However, there are new oil and gas transmission pipeline projects emerging, which could bring a more significant share of the market back to this industry. (Learn more in "The Evolution of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD).")

Positive Industry Effects

As with all industries, an upswing in work means changes. Most changes are improvements over the current standard. Other effects are subtler offer current rig owners a broader perspective when it comes to job opportunities.

Automated Horizontal Directional Drilling Devices

Improvement for precision in horizontal directional drilling is a driving force in automation. The more precise a job is, the less impact it has on the environment and community affected by the project. In fact, the inability to precisely follow a drilling path is a significant complaint about those in the oil and gas industry.

The problem lay in need for fast drilling. With the rates drills worked, there was little to no time for operators to perform the calculations needed to determine the best path or course corrections. Drillers were slowing down and costing the industry billions in lost productivity to compensate.

Drilling companies took complaints into account and began designing automated drilling devices. These companies made smarter drills with displays in both two and three dimensions to help operators navigate better using technology already in use for missile guidance and self-driving cars; A new bit guidance system allows a computer to use data to make decisions on the best drilling performance.

Increased Productivity

A large portion of operators use equipment that is over ten-years-old. While these machines are in good working order and productive on the job, they can lower the productivity of the team when compared to newer models. Contractors are under constant pressure to increase their productivity while maintaining precision.

For this reason, many businesses may retire older tools in favor of newer equipment. Newer equipment is often faster and equipped with automation or other digital technology to help move the project along.

HDD companies also rely on new technology, such as ground penetrating radar, to help locate underground lines. Knowing exactly where utilities already exist, allows drillers to avoid damaging them via cross boring, which could potentially delay the job. (See also "The View Underground: Ground Penetrating Radar.")

Fleet Changes

Gone are the days when it was believed that larger rigs were the only way to secure and complete an HDD job. While large platforms are still needed for oil and gas project, mid-sized platforms (systems with between 40,000 and 100,00 pounds of pullback) and mini-rigs (systems with less than 40,000 pounds of pullback) are growing in number.

Smaller machines are more useful than large rigs in laying telecommunication and electric and gas lines. As a result, more companies are investing in smaller drilling machines to gain more flexibility in job choices.

Negative Industry Effects

Despite the growth in HDD usage for the trenchless technology industries, it is not without its problems. The largest issues come from subpar training, bidding ethics and disposal of waste materials.

Untrained Operators

Arguably the most significant problem still affecting the industry is the lack of inexperienced operators. The machines used in the industry require operators skilled at selecting the appropriate drill bit and reaming devices. Operators must also choose the proper drilling fluid to protect the rig during the projects.

Operators must understand how to use tracking devices and quickly analyze the results for appropriate adjustments to the drill paths to avoid deviation and in the event, equipment must be changed out due to unexpected ground conditions not detected by geotechnical investigations or listed in the geotech-report. (Read "Types of Deviation That can Occur During Drilling Projects.")

Sadly, the exponential growth of this industry has left many companies with few hiring options. Instead of being able to hire a qualified horizontal drilling technician, they frequently choose to employ rotary drillers. While they do have experience in drilling, they may not be adept at using HDD machinery.

Instead, they get on-the-job training, which may slow the project down while they receive their certification. This also leads to a bit of micro-supervision where a qualified technician or manager is tasked with overseeing almost all of the end-stage operations undertaken by various workers on the site.

Poor Bidding Practices

In most municipalities, bidding is an integral part of laying or rehabilitating utility lines. While most contractors bid fairly, many underbid to get the job without regard to their bottom line. In line with these poor bidding practices, companies are not able to complete the task on a budget or on time causing issues for them in future projects. Sometimes, they cut corners to meet their low bid, resulting in shoddy work, which may have to be redone. (Read on in "How Bid On That Trenchless City Project.")

These experiences cause officials to shy away from the new technology in favor of conventional trenching practices that are "the known evil" vs the unknown.

Mud Disposal

A common complication for HDD operators is the disposal of used mud. Federal regulations dictate how and where the fluid can be disposed of. However, these regulations may be overruled by state legislation. The cost of proper disposal is expensive and varies depending on location and fluid composition.

Complications will always be part of the construction world. However, the push in HDD projects allowed for innovations. Technology now enables operators to precisely cut paths at the speeds necessary to increase productivity.

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Written by Denise Sullivan | Technical Writer @ Trenchlesspedia

Denise Sullivan

Denise Sullivan is an accomplished freelance writer from Louisiana, with a Associate's Degree in Journalism from Eastern Oklahoma State College. She also graduated from East Central University with a Bachelor's in Biology. Denise began her writing career writing operations and maintenance manuals and software utility manuals for flight simulators. Since, she has expanded her writing to a broad spectrum of topics.

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