20 Years And Still Rocking

Since the inception of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) in the late 1970s, there have been remarkable advances in the technology and equipment that serves the trenchless construction industry. The equipment in the early 1980s was basic and not designed specifically for HDD, nor was it particularly reliable.

However in the late ‘80s, things changed rapidly. Major manufacturers who had previously concentrated their efforts on the oil and gas drilling industry realized there could be an untapped new market for rigs, drill pipe, downhole equipment and drilling tools and started to produce equipment specifically for the HDD market, forever changing the face of that young industry.

It was in this environment in 1993 that Brent Lane, James Agnew and Frank McKenney (now retired) founded INROCK Drilling Systems Incorporated. Now known simply as INROCK, the company has grown consistently from a start-up to a global HDD leader by emphasizing innovative, quality technologies and solutions with sales, service and operations facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, The Netherlands and Latin America. The company’s administrative and manufacturing headquarters are in Houston, TX. Later this year, the company will host an open house – one for clients and another for vendors – to mark the completion of its new office expansion in Houston that will add nearly 8,000 square feet to its existing 20,000 square feet, coinciding with the company’s 20th anniversary celebration.

INROCK’s roots date back to the mid-1980s, when Lane, Agnew and McKenney got involved with horizontal drilling while working for Smith International, a supplier of products to gas and oil production and exploration companies. Smith merged with Schlumberger in 2010.

“It was during the downturn of the 80s when Smith International’s business faltered due to declining oil prices that we were tasked with finding new technologies and applications that could be explored to enhance their core offerings,” says Lane. “That’s when Frank, Jim and I literally stumbled on HDD.”

Lane went on to explain that by introducing rock drilling that could be used in the large rig HDD arena, they were instrumental in helping Smith grow that part of the business until the oil and gas business picked up again. However, once that happened and there was no longer a pressing need to expand in new markets, company officials wanted to focus on their core business, not HDD.

“They wanted us back in the oil field, but with Jim’s background in directional drilling, Frank’s in geology and mine in business, we decided to strike out on our own,” recalls Lane. “When we realized HDD wasn’t a big piece of the pie for Smith, we voted with our hearts, minds, feet and finances to form our own business. We were excited about this new industry and could see a niche that needed filling. We each had a different expertise we could bring to the table and mold in to one company.”

Evolution of a company
And just like the industry, INROCK has come a long way in 20 years. The ability to invest in the right people and staying true to their core HDD business by offering proprietary product diversity in varied geographical areas, are key reasons the company continues to flourish, says Lane. “As we started each company, we brought together the experts in the industry under our umbrella who have helped us build the company. Our employees have been with us a long time and are recognized around the world in the HDD market, almost since its founding. We’ve grown up with the industry’s decision makers, especially in the large rig sizes where we’ve had our focus.”

As an innovator of drilling products, INROCK sees the potential for expanding its geographical footprint to capture new inroads on a global scale. They employ approximately 60 employees worldwide of whom about 65 percent are located in North America and 35 percent internationally. INROCK’s revenue is split about 50-50 between the U.S. and international companies. Lane comments that this type of mix is welcome because “it allows the company to have global diversity in multiple end markets which can help our revenue grow when one market is rising and another may be down.”

Highlights of INROCK’s remarkable growth include:
• 1993: INROCK Drilling Systems Inc. is launched and quickly establishes its place in the HDD drilling business by pioneering rock steerability and reaming of HDD.
• 1997: INROCK UK is created to reach a more global market. David Lewis, director, joins INROCK. INROCK Guidance Systems Inc., expanding the company into the guidance systems arena where it operated from the UK location.
• 1999: Acquired manufacturing company, Drillers Supply Inc. Sells the water well and mining business concern to the previous owners and retools the manufacturing facility to build products exclusively for the HDD market. With this acquisition, the company goes from being strictly a supplier to manufacturing most of their products in house. For more consistent company brand recognition, it is later renamed INROCK Manufacturing. INROCK Canada is established.
• 2004: Opened INROCK Latin America sales office in Monterey, Mexico.

Staying true to their core
From the start, INROCK was an innovator. The company pioneered accurate rock steering ability and large reaming passes on the first rock drilling projects ever attempted in the HDD industry and continues directing its resources on setting the standards of HDD performance drilling tools, equipment and services.

INROCK partnered with Vector Magnetics’ HDD steering tool systems providing ParaTrack equipment sales, rental, service and support. ParaTrack has broadened the scope of feasible HDD projects with the advent of intersects, BTS-Beacon Tracking System, pressure monitoring, ABIA, single conductor wire and parallel tracking applications. The system is used for boring two pilot holes from opposite sides, intersecting in the middle. Depth, horizontal distance and deviation from a predetermined course are computed at the surface with the data received from the downhole steering tool. This process can facilitate much longer bores and dramatically extend HDD options for many distance-challenging projects.

Based on the merits of rock drilling, the company introduced and is the sole supplier of hard rock HDX bit and reamer cutting technology as well having designed a proprietary XTR – Extreme Reamer reaming platform. It is the only reaming platform capable of utilizing XTR soft rock milled tooth (MT), XTR medium hard rock and HDX premium hard rock cutters on the same reamer body.

A full suite of drilling tools and accessories supplied and manufactured by INROCK include XTM mud motors, drill bits, makeup breakout tongs, non-magnetic drill collars, crossover subs, jet subs, fly cutters, barrel reamers, hole openers, swivels and more.

A more recent addition to their product line is DrilData, INROCK’s proprietary performance drilling electronic data recording and information gathering and communication technology. It includes an HDDC utility services program to standardize the HDD industry’s recording and data reporting language.

“Guided by the oil and gas industry’s use of a similar measuring tool for standard reporting and safety and performance reasons, we designed our DrilData from scratch using HDD nomenclature and drilling parameters so the system is more compact and more compatible with HDD capabilities,” says Lane.

He adds that DrilData brings new technology to clients, engineering and inspection firms, and contractors that can save them time and money. Critical operating parameters are gathered, recorded and graphically displayed. The client can then evaluate the data and make decisive decisions in drilling performance, both of the pilot hole and reaming passes. Data can be uploaded to a secure web site for real time viewing simultaneously at multiple locations.

“A contractor can be in the middle of nowhere,” explains Lane, “basically anywhere in the world, and we can set him up with the DrilData system to record information that is critical for drilling such as mud volume, rotary torque, thrust/pullback force, etcetera. The operator can concentrate on drilling tasks without overlooking established safety parameters or drilling requirements as he relays this information in real time to the in-cab, touch-screen computer.”

Proactive vision, singular focus
Through the years, the company also has expanded its product offerings centered on customer needs. “Customer feedback is invaluable in helping us push the envelope with our products; we believe in being proactive, not reactive to the industry,” remarks Lane.

He goes on to explain their visionary approach in respect to product development. “INROCK pioneered larger pilot hole drilling and larger reaming passes in rock were required. Originally bore holes had to be reamed in smaller multiple passes requiring more time and tools, but using our technology and products that number has been reduced by a factor of 50 percent. Not only has this increased the opportunity for the contactor to be successful on the bore, but it allows engineering companies and client companies the ability to perform longer, larger bores expanding HDD applications, which in turn is good for everybody,” says Lane.

Not satisfied with just designing and supplying the HDD market with their products, INROCK’s vision included manufacturing all of their products themselves. “We have a hands-on approach from the beginning to the end of each product which sets us apart from our competitors,” says Lane. “We’re the only company that manufactures our products in house. It pays good dividends because it allows us to have proprietary products throughout our manufacturing process and it gives us better control over our destiny from the standpoint of product design and launch, who our suppliers are, from acquiring the raw materials to creating the finished product.”

Another key to the long-term success of INROCK is its commitment to the HDD market and only the HDD market. “We attribute that success to our singular focus on horizontal drilling,” says Lane. “We haven’t gone into the oil and gas market, even though some of our products have crossover capabilities. Early on we decided to chase our dreams in the HDD market and we never deviated from that plan. I think that’s why it’s helped us make decisions to invest in our manufacturing infrastructure and global locations around the world; it’s what sets up apart from competitors.”

Training to succeed

The company’s commitment to training is another key factor to the success of INROCK, which prides itself on giving their customers a level of comfort using their expertise gained in the field. “We offer an onsite training program to assist an operator in learning to bore rock, and how to bid on a prospective job with a suggested time/cost estimate based on operator input such as length of bore, hardness and type of rock and equipment resources,” says Lane. “New customers are also given product support and we show them how to service and repair our tools. INROCK can be reached anytime, anywhere for seamless global support 24/7.”

As this relatively young industry grows, educating a new generation becomes paramount to its continued success, and INROCK is committed to being at the forefront. Besides membership in several industry associations and teaching through speaking engagements at trade shows, INROCK is proactively hiring graduating students from among engineering colleges and technical schools who have a strong background in math and science.

“In our business, you can’t just go out and hire someone from a different industry or discipline because so much of what we do doesn’t translate from their industry to ours,” Lane explains. “We have to train new filed service, sales and management people from scratch to follow in our footsteps. We’ll teach them the basics. It takes several years to be fully trained. This can be a barrier to a company’s growth, but at INROCK we believe we have to train the next HDD generation to receive a good return on our investment – it just requires patience!”

What’s ahead
When envisioning the future of the company, Lane expresses confidence about where INROCK is headed. In addition to relocating their operations in Canada to a new building in 2013 because they were outgrowing their old facility, he says that the newest venture for the company includes even more expansion plans. They will be adding to their service and fabrication capabilities internationally, increasing their sale staff at several locations and launching a U.S. regional sales force that will cover five regions – Southwest, Southeast, Northeast, West and the Midwest.

Looking at placing themselves more strategically in the marketplace around the world, INROCK has also entered a new market in civil construction and continues to explore new HDD end markets. Lane sees this as a new opportunity to use their products and services to drill accurate holes in dam stabilization, remediation and tunnel installations.

Reflecting on the past 20 years and how far they’ve come from those early days, Lane expressed deep appreciation for their clients. “Our clients have helped us grow and become the company we are today,” he says. “In turn, we hope we’ve helped them with their business. It’s our desire to continue our long term relationships to partner with them in identifying new inroads, products and technologies to help our contractors stay successful.”

For More Information

INROCK: (713) 690-5600; (877) 2 INROCK; www.inrock.com