Editor's Log: The Good, The Bad & The Future Of HDD

June 2013, Vol. 68, No. 6

Headlining this issue of Underground Construction is our industry-exclusive horizontal directional drilling survey (published online on June 17). This marks 15 years of research into the amazing HDD market that has evolved at an incredible rate, evolving from a utility and pipeline construction novelty to a necessity in a relatively short period of time.

Similar to the cured-in-place pipe technology introduced by Insituform to the rehabilitation market in 1971, HDD has become a “disruptive” technology that has forever changed the way the underground construction market addresses new installation of infrastructure. In fact, one of our survey respondents exuberantly declared that “the directional drill will be as common on a job site as a backhoe.” There is a lot of truth in that statement.

We began this survey during a memorable upswing in the cross-country fiber market. Rig production reached unbelievable heights in 2000 with almost 4,000 rigs built (and mostly sold!). It was a time of high profit and endless work logs. Of course, it couldn’t last. The telecom bust brought the still fledgling industry back down to reality and our survey captured the agony of a market depression for both contractors and manufacturers. Rig production fell to a low of 460 units in 2003.

But the industry slowly recovered from the bad years, embarking on the road to recovery at a more solemn, realistic pace, all the while continuing to develop. Those surviving contractors and manufacturers have since built a solid, more realistic market. Rig sales in 2013 should top 2,500 units for the second year in a row, thanks to a strong telecom industry and the well-documented energy boom. Virtually all other market segments continue to prosper for HDD as well.

Another interesting change in the HDD market has to do with the actual size of rigs. While smaller rigs continue to dominate in terms of gross numbers, mid-sized and even large rigs are becoming more and more popular. More mid-to-large rigs were sold in 2012 than ever before and that should continue in 2013. While the obvious conclusion is that the oil and gas shale boom is the cause, it is much more complex than that.