Field reports from suppliers describe an evolving marketplace.

The hammer and bit and tri-cone bit markets are working double shifts lately. Suppliers are not content to simply work hard to get sales volumes back to previous peak levels; they're doing as much, if not more, to keep advancing the technology, as well.

Tee Jay International Inc. builds hole openers to any specification.

A Bump in the Road

Tom Dinn is president of Tee Jay International Inc., Frankfort Heights, Ill. The company has been serving the needs of drilling contractors since 1935. It currently employs five people during peak season, but Dinn says he's, "Looking to add to that when the market conditions allow."

"We sell mostly three-cone bits -- lots of TCI bits for overburden and that sort of thing," Dinn reports. "Hammers account for maybe 10 percent of our business." As for the bits, he says, "We sell 5:1 used/rebuilt vs. new, and I expect that to continue for the foreseeable future." While the company offers the entire range up to 36 inches, the most popular size bit that moves through Tee Jay is 7 7?

Sixty percent to 70 percent of his business is overseas -- exporting to other dealers. Lots of those customers are drilling for precious minerals and doing irrigation projects. Domestically, virtually all his customers are water well drillers.

Asked how business has been this year compared to last year, Dinn responds, "We've seen a downturn this year, but the thing is, last year was the best year we ever had. After 9/11 the difference was noticeable. Transportation was impeded; we didn't have the easy access back and forth that we enjoyed before that. We haven't been getting the folks in from overseas that we were seeing and, quite frankly, we were a little reluctant to travel to some of the places that we had been going to in the past."

This downturn is a first for Tee Jay International. "It had been a steady upward trend over the past 20 years -- 5 percent to 10 percent every year," Dinn explains. "Right now we're just looking for stability and for everything to quiet down and free up access. A year ago, we could predict the air delivery scheduling accurately within a few days. Now, we never know exactly things will arrive and we really can't inquire too closely. We don't know where a shipment will be stopped or rerouted - it's not as predictable as it was before 9/11."

Dinn is looking forward to getting back to normalcy and continuing the steady growth mode the company had gotten used to enjoying for so long. As for future markets with growth potential, Dinn says, "Mining is a market that we're looking at very closely. It could go either way, but we want to be ready."

Speed and durability are the key attributes that concern drilling contractors. Courtesy of Atlas Copco.

Sizing Down, Beefing Up

Dave Stroh of Atlas Copco Construction Mining Technique USA Inc., headquartered in Commerce City, Colo., tells us that for his well drilling and quarry drilling customers, "We move the 6-inch size the most. For the well drillers, basically from all the way down South up to New York, they generally use a 6 1?inch bit to drill their wells. When you get up into New England, some of the guys use a 6.1, and in the Maine area, northern New Hampshire and northern Vermont, they normally use a 6-inch because they use that heavier pound per foot casing."

"With the quarry drillers," Stroh explains, "it depends on where they're at and how many houses are around the quarry. Sometimes the drillers will downsize to a 5-inch hammer and 5 1?inch bit to cut down on the noise and vibration and the powder. In my area of Pennsylvania, the bulk of the aggregate quarry drilling is done with a 6-inch hammer with a 6 1?inch bit -- that's the norm. That's not a rule by any means, but that is what's typical."

Echoing a familiar refrain, Stroh says, "Contractors are looking for speed and reliability in the hammers. They want faster penetration rates for their rigs with larger compressors on them. Our new hammer is very fast -- the second generation offers a QL shank bottom end. Ever since Ingersoll-Rand introduced the QL hammer with 12 splines instead of eight splines, everybody else followed suit. That minimizes spline wear because there is more surface area with the four more splines and the load is better distributed -- especially when drilling in unconsolidated and broken material. It's just a better shank. It's a larger, beefier OD shank, and that minimizes shank breakage. Some of the hammers still come with the 360 bottom end shank that's been around for 20 or 25 years. But the 12-spline shank probably will be the norm here in another year or two. We're seeing a drastic change from 360 shank bits to QL shanks -- especially in the water well drilling market."

"Another trend we're seeing concerns the rigs," Stroh notes. "They've got larger cfm compressors. In the old days it was 750/250s. Ten years ago we got into 900/350s and that's the norm in the states. Now we're seeing 1000s 1050s, and 1150s -- all with 350 psi. I think we'll be moving from 350 psi to 400 psi as the norm. The question is where do you draw the line? The more pressure you put to it, the harder it hits and the more susceptible it is to breakage."