Improvements In HDD Technology Over Last 50 Years

by Robert Carpenter Editor-in-Chief

Robert Carpenter Underground ConstructionIt is said that the last 50 years have seen more accumulation of knowledge and technological developments than in all the previous history of mankind. Today, technology, on an annual basis, is advancing geometrically. It has changed our lives in ways we cannot even begin to fathom – and our economics as well.

As I was compiling the wealth of information from our exclusive 19th Annual Underground Construction Horizontal Directional Drilling Survey, technology kept springing to mind. Nowhere in the fast-paced, big-iron infrastructure construction industry is technological advancement more apparent than in the HDD market.

From an initial concept and experimentation by Dick Melsheimer with small directional equipment for utilities in Los Angeles, to the large rig development by Martin Cherrington and co-workers, today’s fleet of HDD rigs and equipment represents a radical change from the 1960s – more than those pioneers could have possibly envisioned.

Early HDD development saw frequent quantum leaps in the hardware, steadily making the equipment more reliable, accurate and durable. With that kind of rapid advance, it wasn’t long before utilities beyond oil and gas pipelines saw the advantage of using the small version of HDD rigs.

The first telecom construction boom hit like a tidal wave and swept the small rig market into unimaginable economic heights. HDD was the perfect technology at the right time. Again, technology kept improving the equipment. Even after the telecom bust brought the HDD industry crashing back to reality, technology moved the equipment forward, but now in a different tangent.

While refinements and enhancements in the iron and steel of the machine are still progressing, the quantum leaps are now coming with electronics and software. From locating to steering to bore planning, digital equipment continually adds new features and benefits. It was not long ago that small and mid-sized rigs required operators to use levers and switches. Now it’s joysticks. You can’t hardly buy a machine today that doesn’t have a built-in digital touchscreen to activate and operate multitudes of features.

Technology in our private lives is becoming directly linked to our industry. It’s no wonder that companies such as Ditch Witch and Vermeer have developed various forms of simulators and VR devices for training, as that is how the new workforce learns and navigates through daily life.

A friend recently told me how technology has changed his workplace. He’s an engineer, but his point is applicable to much of the underground infrastructure market. He related how businesses used to have an “additive” approach to projects where they would tackle a task or solve a challenge by starting at the bottom and then adding pieces to the puzzle until the job was complete. Now, there seems to be more of an “edited” approach. When we start a project, we look for corollaries or similar projects from the past, pull out that template, then revise to meet current needs. Technology has made us more participatory and collaborative in our approaches. Our customers demand immediate results and information.

I recently read of an ironic technology twist. In India, technology enabled that country to raise a generation of engineers and various types of technology experts. Through communications advances, India became the “information and help” workforce of the world. Now, that tech has become a double-edged sword. In April, more than 200,000 workers were laid off in a single day, as the need for call centers is dropping precipitously. Technology has already leapt ahead, and the demand for call centers remains tentative at best. More massive layoffs are planned.

The “human” component is still a crucial aspect of all technological advancements. There are always gaps in automation requiring new specializations for people to fill those gaps. But we also don’t want to become so caught up in keeping pace with fast-paced technology advancements and automation that we fail to “stop and smell the roses.”

In general, technology has always been both a benefit and a challenge at the same time. With the inevitable advances of the artificial intelligence component of technology, I can’t help but wonder if technology will eventually supersede our capacity to adapt?

As much as our society has advanced over the past 50 years, at this pace I would not even venture a guess as to where we’ll be in another 50 years. Should be quite a ride.

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