Sunday, June 16, 2024

Have drill, will travel

Rock drilling is a niche market

The temperature near Härnösand on Sweden’s Baltic coast is barely above freezing. Sleety snow sweeps across the project site, strafing the workers who stamp their boots and keep their dialog brief.

“Frozen ground is tough.” observed Cay Walldén bluntly. Cay is proprietor of AB Willer, an small-to-medium enterprise that does horizontal drilling work on construction and infrastructure projects throughout central Sweden. “When you create an entry hole through an icy surface, it can be hard to prevent the drill head from bouncing. Controlling the process takes skill and a top-end drilling rig.”

With a can-do attitude and the latest technology, Cay is building a reputation as a Mr Fixit in this field. He offers a flexible, rapid-response service to developers and utility companies that need rock drilling capability at short notice. On the site outside Härnösand, he is helping a cable infrastructure operator extend its fibre-optic network by routing a spur beneath a highway and railroad. Work on the project had to be halted when the contractor unexpectedly ran into a ridge of bedrock. With the schedule in jeopardy, the project manager turned to Cay.

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“Rock drilling is a niche market.” he explained back in the comfort of his office. “There are not many companies with the capability, and the larger firms often are not in a position to respond quickly when a developer needs support in a dynamic situation. We are a small, agile business with the know-how and equipment to step in quickly and handle whatever challenges the job entails. As a result, we have built up a strong track record in this segment.”

AB Willer has not always specialised in horizontal drilling, though. “I started the business in 2013 during what you might call the fibre-optic installation ‘boom’. Back then, we were generalists with several machines of different types, handling quite a variety of work. We had a larger workforce, too. The trouble was that each bit of kit was standing idle most of the time. When you are using this excavator, you are not using that drill or your other digger, so you have got all this capital tied up in gear that is productive only a portion of the time. With all the price fighting going on back then, that was not economically sustainable.”

Over time, a more focused business model developed based on expertise and rapid response. Instead of offering a comprehensive excavation service, the company now profiles itself exclusively as a drilling contractor. Central to the success of the new business model is a horizontal directional drill that can go pretty much any place and take pretty much any soil or bedrock in its stride, the Vermeer D23x30DR S3 Navigator® horizontal directional drill (HDD).

“When we decided to invest in a new HDD, I was adamant that it had to be something we could put on a standard flatbed truck without a trailer.” recalled Cay. “That way, we can be more responsive, keep the vehicle fleet small and take the rig all over, down narrow city streets, up farm tracks, wherever. When we looked at the options, the Vermeer drill stood out. Nothing came close in terms of compact power. Most drills with similar wattage are well over 2 meters wide, whereas the D23x30DR S3 is only one meter sixty-odd. As well as going on the truck easily, it is also very manoeuvrable onsite. Sometimes when you are working in the city, you have got to get between buildings. Obviously, you still need to move around inside that narrow space to do the work. Being relatively light and having rubber tracks are also advantages in that kind of setting.”

Another requirement was versatility. “A lot of the work we get depends on being able to start with short notice. We do not have the opportunity to survey the site for ground conditions beforehand, and most customers do not know much about the ground that needs drilling. They just want a borehole from here to there and they have got no idea what is in between. It might be mud or gravel or rock. If you are going to take on work like that, you need a drill that can handle whatever you might come up against.”

With its dual-rod technology, the D23x30DR S3 is that drill. Thanks to a solid inner rod and a hollow outer rod, the rig combines the torque required to punch through resilient ground with the fluid-flow capacity needed for fast and efficient mud drilling. Therefore, AB Willer can travel to an unseen site with a single drill, confident of being able to get the job done, regardless of the substrate.

“Size and ability to handle different types of ground were big factors in our choice of drill, but so was performance.” continued Cay. “After all, our performance as a company is directly linked to the performance of our equipment. So when I went to check out the Vermeer drill at a demo in Germany, I was looking closely at things that would influence performance.”

Among the features that won Cay over was the Deutz diesel engine that delivers 75 kW with a thrust/pullback force of 106.8 kN and variable speeds. The D23x30DR S3’s drill head is also connected directly to the rod, reducing length and weight, and thus improving efficiency. Then there is the tough tooling setup with its two-degree bend in the front section for optimised steering. What is more, despite weighing only 7.5 tonnes, it remains secure even on the most demanding jobs thanks to the aggressive stake-downs supplied as a standard feature.

Having taken the plunge and buying a D23x30DR S3 last year, Cay has not been disappointed. “We took delivery in the autumn, so we have used it right through the winter, when drilling conditions are toughest. It has not let us down once, and it is easier to use than what we had before. The controls are simple, meaning you can keep one hand on each joystick; you do not have to move your hands from one control to another all the time. They arre rugged too, marine grade, which is obviously welcome in this kind of environment. Another thing I like is that you can watch the rod loading from the operator’s seat.”

Like any business active on an open market, AB Willer needs to be competitive on price, which implies managing costs. “Considering it has got such a powerful turbo diesel engine, the fuel consumption is surprisingly good. Over time, I am expecting the replaceable Nylatron wear pads to make a difference to running costs as well. Idle time is a cost item too, of course, because when the drill is not running, it is not earning. So the fact that the bearing pack only has to be re-greased every eight hours is good. Changing the rod baskets does not take long either.”

Extensive use of standardised components, including mud seal and vices, is a further additional benefit in terms of reducing the D23x30DR S3’s estimated cost of ownership. “With ours being such a new machine, I do not yet have much experience of servicing or replacing parts. But I did think about that kind of thing before buying, and I was reassured to see that everything looks very straightforward. It has got a one-piece hood, for example, so getting at the engine and hydraulic components is easy. The quick-release latches are a neat touch because having to unbolt hardware can be a real pain.”

As an employer who has to consider the welfare of his workers, Cay is also glad of the D23x30DR S3’s safety features, including Remote Lockout and Strike Alert system as standard. “Something else I have noticed is that this drill is less noisy than the one we had before, which is obviously better for the operator and helpful when working close to houses and apartments.”

Although he is not short of enterprise or business sense, Cay Walldén is not an empire builder. His ambition is simply to keep delivering the best possible service to his customers, a service he can take pride in. His relationship with the Vermeer Scandinavian dealer is a vital part of realising that ambition. “What I like about dealing with Vermeer Viking is that you can always go to them with questions. They might not have all the answers at their fingertips, but anything they do not know they find out and get back to you. The dialog is good; they are always there for us.”

To a drilling contractor whose success is based on dependability, such steadfast support clearly counts for a lot. Website:

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