The National Ground Water Association’s annual Groundwater Week conference, held in December in Las Vegas, allows every attendee to visit and learn from peers in the drilling industry.

This year, I found myself at a dinner with drillers from the U.K., Israel, South Africa, Canada and all over the United States. Every guest at the dinner had the same passion: sonic drilling. These drillers utilized sonic to install monitoring wells, retrieve samples, install geothermal loops and in industrial drilling. After all the years I have attended NGWA, I found myself in an uncharted drilling community of drillers from all around the world. I had to seek out the team that brought drillers together from multiple continents. That team was the Eijkelkamp family of companies.

After the event, I interviewed Huug Eijkelkamp, co-owner and CEO of Royal Eijkelkamp, and Troy Chipps, CEO of Eijkelkamp North America. We spoke about where they come from, where they are headed and how they created their culture for the drilling industry. Our interview here is edited for space and clarity.

Q. Eijkelkamp is over 100 years old. Tell us about your history.

Huug Eijkelkamp. My great-grandfather started the business in 1911 as a civil blacksmith after the First World War. Then my grandfather, Jan, continued the family business as a civil blacksmith, but he expanded his craftsmanship with a shop that had everything you could imagine. He did the first gas plumbing in the Netherlands to maintenance in brick factories; he did all types of work.

In the late 1950s, he was asked by Prof. Kees Edelman [a renowned soil scientist of the mid-20th century] to make hand augers. Our hand augers today are called Edelman. They used these augers to do geological mapping of the Netherlands. The funny fact is the first hand augers were only 5 feet long so they could fit into the cab of a Volkswagen Beetle. That was the car of choice for a geologist to travel the Netherlands to do the geological mapping. The Edelman augers were Eijkelkamp’s entry into geotechnical drilling equipment.

Then in the late 1960s, my father, Fons, after finishing his service in the military, took over the family business. My father told my granddad, “I see a bright future in geotechnical soil and water research equipment.” So he focused the company on the geotechnical industry and, by the late 1970s, we built our first manufacturing factory. 

Q. There are many drilling methods out there. How did Eijkelkamp find sonic and start building sonic rigs?

H.E. During the lousy oil recession that started in the 1980s, Royal Dutch Shell came to see my father and asked him to find a better drilling method for seismic drilling. At that time, we were already using percussion and mud rotary for seismic. Eijkelkamp did a worldwide survey for other processes and found Albert Bodine’s research on sonic drilling. In our point of view, he is one of the pioneers of sonic drilling. He was a professor and did a great job of inventing stuff, but was never able to make something into a wide commercial success. The idea of the sonic we took back to the Netherlands, and built our first small sonic in the early 1990s. 

Q. So, you built your first rig and it was a success, and the rest is history?

H.E. [Laughs] No. Throughout the 1990s, we tested our sonic technology. We had a lot of failures. We paid a lot of learning money — I am talking about millions. However, we saw that when the sonic technology worked, it worked so fast and so great that we continued to work at it throughout the 1990s. Since the oil recession continued, we started to adapt the technology to environmental, geotechnical and construction drilling, which was done through Eijkelkamp Soil and Water. 

Q. When did you move from Soil and Water to SonicSampDrill?

H.E. I came into the company in the early 2000s and I saw that we needed more influence from different engineers and designers. Our business was a separate product line than the small laboratory equipment we were creating. Our equipment is more diesel engines, hydraulic equipment — with a cowboy mentality. So, in 2005 we did a spin-off called SonicSampDrill. We started with four people and now we have 50 employees and dare to say we are the largest manufacturer of sonic equipment in the world. 

Q. Tell me about how you started Eijkelkamp North America and how you selected Troy.

H.E. Now, I always have seen that the United States is a great country to do business in for drilling. Over our years, we have worked with several U.S. distributors who were great. But then you are just a part of a company. I wanted a team with full dedication to the product line. At one of the first NGWAs I attended, I met Troy — he was president of AMS back then — and we became friends. When it was time to start a venture in the United States with 100-percent dedication to Eijkelkamp and with 100-percent service for U.S. and Canadian clients, Troy and I talked. He agreed to be the CEO to help the new entity in North America. 

Q. Troy, that’s a big venture to take on. Why did you choose North Carolina as a headquarters?

Troy Chipps. We knew to work with our U.S. clients that we needed to have a North American base — to be able to service our customers, to treat them the way they deserve to be treated. It was smartest, logistically, to make our North American headquarters on the East Coast. We are incorporated in the U.S. with our own P&L [profit and loss statement] but owned by Huug’s group.

Q. What do you enjoy about working for Eijkelkamp?

T.C. Eijkelkamp is always pushing forward. We are always looking forward to the next innovation and the future. We not only push forward on innovation but also on staffing by seeking out the best employees to build our sales force, service support.

Q. How do you both create innovative drilling technology and find early adopters in an industry that is slow to change?

H.E. At Eijkelkamp, everyone on the team has an opinion and we listen to all of them — even the cleaner. We also use the same idea for our clients; if they have ideas, we are not conservative and say, “Hey, this is what you can buy. ... Buzz off,” meaning we don’t want to listen to you. No, tell us what you want. Many of our innovations in our drills are innovations from our clients. Then we have a high-tech team of rig engineers from Italy and the Netherlands, who are ready to hear what we want, and then they make it. I believe our early adopters are every client we get.

Q. So, your clients are the early adopters. What about the other 90 percent of the industry? How does sonic become an everyday new normal?

T.C. You don’t know what you don’t know. A lot of times, we have to bring people into Eijkelkamp and show them what we do. One thing we started doing three years ago is demo days at the World of Eijkelkamp. You are right, Brock, it’s hard. So that’s why we show it to them.

Q. Beyond geotechnical drilling, where next do you see sonic emerging as a strong method of choice?

T.C. One we see as a big opportunity is the construction market. Geotech, we are using CPT; we have a special sonic head for CPT.

H.E. In Europe, sonic has taken over the construction drilling market in micropiles, anchors and injections. We see in the future large-diameter piles. We are developing larger and more powerful rigs. The combination drills with CPT and sonic are more important than ever. We have a customer in Alberta mobilizing double crews and drills at double the cost. With a combination, we can reduce the cost, and our customers can pass that on to their clients.

Q. Is the future combination rigs?

H.E. Combination is just one rig. Our goal is to shift from 150 Hertz to 180 Hertz in 2020. We will have an accreditation from an independent geotechnical institute that, the higher the frequency, the better-quality the sample. Next, we are working on larger sonic rigs with deeper depths where we can get 1,200 feet max. In the near future, the goal is a sonic drill that can go to 2,000 feet for larger diameters. We have a RotoSonic vibrocore for offshore applications, where you can take a sample of 10 to 15 feet in one run. We are also working on a locking mechanism for a sonic wireline system. Finally, we are going to continue to create multipurpose rigs because we believe that, if you make an excellent multipurpose rig, a client can have the best utilization of the machine. That is our list for 2020. 

Q. Tell me how the control panel for your rigs was designed.

H.E. Designed by drillers for drillers. Truly, we took all the feedback from our customers, plus within Eijkelkamp. We have eight seasoned sonic master drillers from around the world. They all gave us feedback and design suggestions from control memory functions to the controllable frequency. Instead of just taking all that feedback, we took it and designed our controls.

Q. What are you creating next? Can you give us a look at the future? 

T.C. Our continual focus for the future is making sure our customers are successful. We need to make sure we create for them the equipment that allows them to do their best in front of their clients. When we do that, we are winning. Beyond that, we believe in new technology through collaboration from partners that come from industry, universities and from the government. Huug can talk to you about the InnoFactory.

Q. What is the InnoFactory?

H.E. We have three companies: Eijkelkamp Soil & Water, SonicSampDrill, and Eijkelkamp CPT. To streamline all companies working together, we are allocating a new facility. Every day, all three will come together to work on new innovations. What drives us is innovation.

Q. How do you train customers on sonic?

H.E. Every sonic drill that is sold has a training session where we teach the drillers to become master sonic drillers. We train drillers and evaluate them on sonic operations and, when they pass, they get a sonic license. It also gives our master drillers a chance to determine if a company has the right person operating the rig before it becomes a possible catastrophic failure.

Q. Tell me about your World of Eijkelkamp training trip?

T.C. We have an exciting story to tell. The best way is just to show it to people by bringing them over to Holland. We show them [everything from] handmade augers to sonic drilling. Clients have a great experience by getting to share a week in Holland and Italy. Huug shows our customers the family culture of Eijkelkamp, and also a fun time. 

H.E. The fact is we work more than 50 percent of our life, the other big part of our life we sleep. Why the heck shouldn’t we have fun at work? Work needs to be fun. As soon as someone is no longer happy at their job, you find them a position they are happy doing. Eijkelkamp has 160 people that are all having a good time at their job.

Q. Tell me about the Royal Eijkelkamp Foundation and your water sustainability foundation?

H.E. When we became 100 years old in 2011, my father came up with a great idea: Since we earned from the mother world for over 100 years, we needed to give back. We wanted to create a sustainable program in a big way. We had an employee that was half Dutch and half west-African, so we started with his country and said that we would bring water to 100,000 people. … The problem is that most programs get donations and ship [well] products to a location, but after it’s installed, it’s broken within a year. We said that approach was not sustainable, so our plan was to train a local crew to drill at the highest quality standards possible.

Next, to maintain the system, we recruit female entrepreneurs who are educated. We give them a motorcycle, and they will travel to the villages to sell drinking water credits. These villages are not used to paying for water, but the water is not expensive. It’s like .0003 cents per liter. The amount is near nothing, but enough to teach the locals the value of water. The funds collected go to the entrepreneurs to maintain the system, and we call these individuals “water entrepreneurs.”

We plan to build 300 wells and have 30 to 40 water entrepreneurs each maintaining 10 water wells. The program is funded by our companies, the Dutch government and private donations. We have raised 300 million euros to date for the program, and we are just 800 thousand euros short of fully funding the program.

T.C. The cool thing about the program is how sustainable the water systems can be and how life changing the program will become. We are teaching drillers and businesswomen to sustain water for their communities; there is no loser in this program.

Q. Last question: How do you become a “royal” company? You know, many of us Americans believe you added that yourself to sound cool.

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H.E. Are you serious? [Laughs.] There are 125 companies in the Netherlands with the “royal” designation. The criteria are: you have to be over 100 years old, your family history has to be vetted to have not been in touch with evil people like Nazis, you have to have more than 100 workers and several other requisites. Once you pass, you get the royal designation from the queen.

T.C. It is an impressive designation to have earned. I know a lot of people say, “What is ‘royal’?” When you think Royal Shell and Royal KLM, we are in some excellent company with our designation.