In heaven, there’s only one drill rig. It’s perfect for every job for every drilling contractor (those who’ve made it past the pearly gates, anyway). It’s light as a feather, goes anywhere, is amazingly fast and efficient, requires no fuel, never needs maintenance, and at the end of the workday, it pours you a cold beer. Oh yeah – and it’s free.

Here on planet earth – it’s another story. The mere mortals of the drilling industry must perform a juggling act that involves what we want in a rig, what’s available, and what we actually are willing to pay for. Drilling contractors have their wish lists, and the manufacturers that can fulfill those desires enjoy a competitive advantage. And the manufacturers have R&D departments working hard to come up with equipment that will give their drilling contractor customers an advantage – at reasonable expense.

Everybody is doing their best, so where are we at? What’s the state-of-the-art? I posed these questions to some of the leading rig manufacturers, and this article series reports on what they have to say about the latest innovations that are having an impact in the drilling marketplace.

“What we’re focused on – from a developmental standpoint – is what we call ‘smart iron,’” says Ed Breiner, president and CEO of Schramm Inc. “We came up with the i-Control, which basically is computer-assisted drilling.”

Breiner elaborates: “We have the 455i rig that has two joystick controls for activating different functions; those two joysticks replace about 18 valve handles. That product has been out to our customers for about a year and a half now on a demo basis, and we began selling the product in 2007. A group of new owners is coming in to give us some feedback on their experiences. A lot of information out there gets whispered down the alley, and by the time you get the message, it invariably gets confused. Obviously, our people are on this equipment and have spent time with these contractors, but this meeting is to get them in front of the management team, and make sure we completely understand because that this technology is critical to our business. We have a patent pending on it. Whenever you get a machine out in the field and in the hands of the contractors, you learn something.”

And as the envelope gets pushed further and further, information begets more information. “With the i-Control, we’ll be able to get key communications back about the condition of the machine so we can anticipate failure,” Breiner explains. “Instead of the customer calling us and telling us he needs to replace a trashed main pump, we’ll be able to call him ahead of time and let him know that the temperature of his main pump indicates that there’s particulate in the system, and it has X amount of hours to live, so we’re shipping our a new one right away. We feel that this communication and monitoring is important, with feedback going to the rig operator as well as the home office. We were on the Internet looking at one of our 455i drilling rigs in North Carolina, and we were seeing the feed rate and the rotation – the same thing the operator was looking at. We were doing that with cellular technology. We’re putting more information in the hands of the operator, and now they’re asking questions they didn’t know to ask before. The developers don’t have all the answers, but we certainly have some of the answers. And sometimes, we anticipate an answer to a question that isn’t asked. Innovation is one of our core strategies; we want to be leaders.”

The good folks at Atlas Copco also stress the work-smart approach in their offerings to the industry. Alex Grant, product manager for water well and oil and gas drill rigs points to Atlas Copco’s on-demand hydraulic system. “The whole principle behind that,” Grant explains, “is the hydraulics will operate cooling fan for the oil cooler and engine cooler systems. It also will run the hydraulic controls. What it basically is doing is load-sensing. So, if we don’t have a great load on the hydraulic system, then the engine will reduce its idling speed to match the demand.

“We also have a variable-speed cooling fan that also will reduce the speed of the engine. If conditions are cooler, there’s no need to run that cooling fan flat out, and you can save some fuel consumption. Of course, the amount of savings depends on how far down the hole is going and the weather conditions, but mostly it comes down to the individual operators and how they run their rigs. And you can save even more by disengaging the compressor as you’re tripping out the hole. But basically, the operator does what he normally does, and the system will take care of itself. The sensors in the hydraulic system will do everything for him; there are no manual adjustments to be made. The sensors look at the loading on the hydraulics, and then determine the lowest speed at which the engine can run. Let’s say the operator is using the main hoist winch. The system will determine that there is a high demand on the hydraulics, and the engine speed will increase to meet that demand.”

Atlas Copco engineers also have been able to increased the pressure within the hydraulic system. “That means we can put a 30K winch on a rig, and the footprint is the same size as the 18K winch that we had on our previous generation of rigs. So there’s more power but no increase in weight,” Grant notes. “That’s been available since the middle of 2007. There are nearly 20 of these systems out in the field at the moment. The feedback from the operators in the field has been good, and there’s been some fine-tuning as a result. When you’re pushing the envelope, you certainly expect some of that. A lot of what we have on the drawing board at the minute is refinements of what we have already done, which was a big step.”

Always on the lookout: “One of our main goals is to reduce service intervals; we’re working to get longer lives from the existing components wherever possible. We’re also looking at ergonomics. Can we get the controls to where the operator can position the controls to preferred heights or angles? Can we swing those controls around to the side of the rig and keep the operators out of the way of the drilling a little more? It’s a balancing act for manufacturers – we can come up with all sorts of stuff, but what does it cost and what does it weigh?”

We’re not quite there yet, but someday, we might just be able to drill with that most-righteous iron they use to make holes up in heaven.