Innovation in the drilling industry — be it a process, method or technology — is rarely accepted in the first dozen implementations. In my experience as a product development manager, I have seen many great concepts that fell short of making it to the field for testing — let alone become a standard tool in the field.

Research and development is a high-risk investment for manufacturers that quickly shifts from investment to a lousy gamble the longer it takes to design and implement. That is why the safe bet is innovations focused on drilling and increasing a rig’s downhole capabilities, all while speeding up the entire process. Drill rigs are designed to drill; therefore, faster and stronger is the key to improving the industry. However, field time studies that evaluate how rigs are utilized on a project from start to finish show that drilling is only about 33 percent of a rig’s usage on site. The rest of the time is dedicated to rod handling, retrieving material, installing the product and, everyone’s favorite, fishing. Rod handling is one of those elusive innovations attempted and often, after several failures, abandoned for traditional methods.

Layne, a Granite company, is one of the most experienced drilling companies working successfully and safely on projects around the world. Layne not only saw the need to create a rod-handling system, they made it a top priority stating, “Failure was not an option.” Layne created a patented automated rod manipulator (ARM) system for their Diamond Core Drilling group but, after implementation, it quickly moved into Layne’s other drilling groups.

In Development

The success of the ARM started with a challenge to collaborate among all levels of Layne to create a rod-handling system that would work for every coring rig in the company’s fleet. To better understand how Layne succeeded where many had failed, I interviewed Brian Smith, director of engineering.

Q. Where did the idea for the ARM system originate within Layne?

A. Well first off, the Layne executives and operational leaders have always had a desire to be the market leaders in safety. That was a key driver. Second, major mining clients were requesting automated rod-handling systems for wireline coring rigs.

Q. Why rod handling?

A. We did a safety analysis and figured out that 30 percent of our injuries were related to rod handling. That instantly pushed it to the top of the list. Safety at Layne isn’t just a department. It is part of our DNA; it is what we train for throughout the year. Most members of our management are former drillers with years of experience, and when you come from working on rigs, you understand the importance of equipment that helps you operate safely.

“30 percent of our injuries were related to rod handling.”

– Brian Smith

Q. How did you break the field collaboration code of working with colleagues in the field and at corporate to create the ARM?

A. In my career, I have worked for three unique organizations. I have worked for a manufacturer of equipment, I worked for a manufacturer/service provider, and now I work for a pure service provider. With Layne, I have the advantage of knowing exactly what the tool needs to do because it’s my colleagues requesting it. My mantra has always been, “The best ideas come from the field.”

Q. When did the design process start for the ARM?

A. The ARM kicked off in 2012. At that time, we had a manufacturing facility in Italy. I spent over 100 days in Italy with the engineering group carving out designs for the first unit. However, before Italy, we did extensive information gathering on coring jobs around the world.

Q. How did you take the prototype to the field?

A. Years before the ARM, our Australia team saw a need to design jacked-up platforms for handling rods. They wanted to continue the evolution to human-controlled rod-handling systems. So that was the ARM system, version one, created for top-drive rigs in Australia.

Q. How did you go to fully automated?

A. After we had success with ARM 1, we started ARM 2 for chuck-drive rigs in the western United States. It was important that our legacy rig system be just as safe as our new rigs to operate, so we shipped one of the western U.S. rigs to Italy. The system had to be retrofittable for all our equipment. We had to solve the rotation for the swivel, and we did that for ARM 2. A bonus to the new design was stabilization and mitigation of rod whip. With a push of a button, Layne’s ARM 2 provides full automation of drill rod storage and retrieval.

Q. What is the magazzino and smart track technology?

A. The drill rods are stored in the magazzino, the Italian term for warehouse. The magazzino is a fully automated storage system for the drill rods. The smart track technology includes a continuous rod inventory rollover system. Since we had a computer controlling the rod storage, we wrote a program that manages and monitors rod usage for even use. Our clients view the ARM’s smart track technology as an innovation as big as automated rod handling. We all saw a benefit in even rod wear to minimize rod failure and increase safety on the jobsite.

Q. Was ARM 2 a smooth transition for the western United States mine sites?

A. We knew we had more work once the machine made it to the U.S. Our international maintenance specialist, who has worked on every continent except Antarctica, is one of the best mechanics walking the earth. He was highly involved in testing and adjusting the ARM once it came to the U.S. We worked hundreds of trials at our office with drillers and mechanics. Each test revealed new problems to solve and value-added solutions to the rod-handling process.

Q. How do you move an enclosed rod-handling system on a mine location?

A. We wanted to move over a mile of drill pipe into tough terrain, and we knew that a truck would not be adequate. So, we developed a universal track carrier (UTC) that could move the magazzino, but could also quickly attach to drill rigs, water tanks, solids control and any other accessory that needed to move on site. The UTC is intended for large loads, high elevation and steep grades. It is an extreme machine designed for extreme environments.

Q. How quickly did the ARM and UTC cross over into Layne’s other drilling groups?

A. Layne’s Reverse Circulation office in Chandler, Arizona, was the first to say, “I want an RC-handling platform for the UTC.” So, we immediately built a bed that accommodated all requirements to stabilize and handle RC rod safely. That platform could also detach from the UTC, so now the RC group has a universal carrier to utilize.

Q. How do you retrieve core or get the core barrel with an automated system?

A. The magazzino allows the core barrel to be presented from the left or right side of the magazzino. The ARM can move the core barrel down to the breakout table. The goal is to move the core barrel from the exclusion zone to the safe side.

Q. Now that the driller’s platform is away from the rig, what is the solution for handling core barrel in and out of the hole?

A. The driller can enter the exclusion zone, so when they open the safety gate to enter the area, a safety switch shuts down the ARM to be completely disabled.

Q. Has Layne done any research on how much time is involved in each task during drilling?

A. Yes, we have an in-house program that tells us how much time is spent drilling versus tripping or dropping a tube. Your number of 30 percent is very close to our studies as well.

Q. Generally, automation is perceived as slower. How do you overcome that perception?

A. That was a fear from the beginning. We know that efficacies are essential, and we didn’t want to slow down the process. We studied the cycle times of the rod system very carefully. Our goal was to increase the speed of rod handling by 30 percent.

In the Field

Designing an innovative project to change rod handling is just the beginning. The real test of success or failure is field implementation. I spoke to Scott Graham, operations manager of Layne Mineral Exploration in Chandler, Arizona, to find out how the ARM system performed and was received in the field. Graham has over 30 years of experience in the industry, and has seen many types of rod-handling systems. His team volunteered to test and implement the ARM system in the United States.

Q. What do you like about the ARM system?

A. It’s an excellent system. The way the rods are stored and managed allows for zero rod handling, which is a significant improvement over other types of systems.

Q. What rod size do you run with the magazzino?

A. The magazzino can store rod sizes from PW to BQ.

Q. How much time did you take testing the system?

A. We took our time working the bugs out. We would take it into the field and work with it, and then bring it back to the shop and make an improvement. We have continually improved the technology every time it has gone out and come back.

Q. Is the system as fast as manual tripping, or are safety and fatigue more important than speed?

A. We have gotten the tripping time down to as fast as the conventional way. Our last go around, it was right at 40 seconds per rod.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of fielding the new system?

A. Definitely taking the control panel away from the rig. The drillers were uncomfortable about not being next to the rig at first. However, once they operated from the new position, they liked the vantage point and everything they could see.

Q. What about setting a core tube?

A. Our drillers are very resourceful. They have made tools that they can put up against the rig and feel when tube sets.

Q. How are mine sites receiving the new technology?

A. They are very impressed and can’t believe how seamlessly the system integrated with our rigs — not to mention minimizing risk by not handling rods.

Q. What about sensitive mine sites with small footprints? Can you use the ARM in those situations?

A. The magazzino is smaller than a rod truck and can fit anywhere we would have done it traditionally.

Q. How do you see the adoption of the ARM?

A. I have had many drillers on the ARM now. Within a couple of hours of running the system, they looked like they have been operating it for years.

Q. What else has come from helping design and improve the ARM?

A. The UTC is not only helping with carrying the magazzino, but we are designing other attachments for the UTC that will help us with setup and tear-down time.

Q. Have you heard any concerns with the drill crews worried about automation taking their job?

A. No. You will always need three team members, especially when water can be many miles away. Automation helps most with personnel fatigue and creating a safer jobsite.

Keeping Innovation Practical

Many of Layne’s leaders, like Andie Medhurst, started their careers on drilling rigs in the field. Medhurst, who serves as general manager of mining services for the western U.S., cut his chops in the mining industry on a core rig in Africa. His field experience and knowledge contributed to the ARM’s development. Along with his input and the contributions of others, Medhurst said the Arizona office played a critical role in implementing the system.

“We know that drilling team members will work smarter and safer, and have less fatigue from technology innovations like the ARM.”

– Gernot Penzhorn

The project dates to 2012, the year that Gernot Penzhorn, vice president and division manager of Layne Material Services, says a challenge was issued: to create a better automated rod-handling system.

“We saw the requirement to automate from the major mining customers over the past years,” Penzhorn says. “We also had our information with hand and finger injuries that we wanted to mitigate. The buy-in for automation has come a long way in the past 10 years because of smartphones. We know that drilling team members will work smarter and safer, and have less fatigue from technology innovations like the ARM.”

The great challenge when it comes to innovation in the drilling industry is how to maintain traditional methods accepted by the majority while implementing critical innovations to help the industry progress. It becomes even more difficult when many functions and tasks on drilling projects are taboo to any engineer who hasn’t spent endless hours in the field. Many concepts fail because the idea comes from non-practical origins. Unworkable ideas are thrust into the field for drilling crews to figure out. In this case, Layne capitalized on its strong drilling knowledge to create a collaborative team. That team brought an elegant, 21st-century design to rod-handling systems.