Behind the scenes of HDD tooling development

As horizontal directional drilling contractors prepare for jobs in a tighter market, choosing the right HDD tooling is as important as choosing the right drill for a project.

Take a drill bit as an example. Selecting the right bit for the ground conditions will affect how successfully, quickly and accurately the pilot hole is drilled, setting the tone for the project.

“Tooling can make or break a project,” said Cody Mecham, Vermeer Cutting Edge product manager. “It’s a significant driver of productivity.”

The amount of work and ingenuity that go into developing new pieces of tooling reflect their importance. That’s true for drill bits, reamers, adapters, drive chucks and sub savers, transmitter housings or swivels.

At Vermeer, the creation of a new piece of tooling, from the concept stage to its launch, typically takes several months. But for some items, it can be two years. Along the way, dozens of employees play a direct role in the process, as do customers and representatives from the Vermeer independent dealer network.


There are a few different reasons why a company like Vermeer would develop or update a product.

One is that performance data indicates something new is needed.

Another is hearing from customers. This may be specific feedback, or it may be unarticulated and something Vermeer employees pick up on while spending time with customers. For example, an HDD contractor may not specifically say that changing the diameter of a reamer will improve his productivity. But someone from Vermeer who hears him talk about his challenges, or sees them firsthand at his jobsite, may realize that’s the solution.

Advancements in materials or manufacturing processes also could be a factor. This cuts a couple of different ways. One is if a new material configuration could enhance the quality of a piece of tooling. Or, a change in how a product is manufactured could allow for faster and more economical production while still maintaining quality.

Ultimately, the decision boils down to this: Vermeer is trying to meet the needs of the HDD contractors out on the job.

“We are very market-driven and customer-driven,” said Mecham.


After adequate market research and data are collected and the specs and requirements of the tools are written, a Vermeer project engineer will start the design process. This includes creating different concepts and running them through lab scenarios. This allows for theoretical testing and can indicate if, say, the tooling can bear the necessary amount of torque when made from a certain material.

Also in this phase, the in-house metallurgy department at Vermeer helps determine what material is best suited for the application.

The concept is reviewed internally by the engineering team as well as the group that designs horizontal directional drills. It’s common in this concept phase to also take the prototype product to dealerships and customers to get their feedback on what they like and don’t like.

“Customers really have a voice in the entire process, from ground zero to the final product,” said Mecham.

After a prototype is developed, it is field tested with customers. Vermeer wants to know how it affected their production, whether it met their expectations, its durability and how it compared with other products.

Custom jobs

A different facet of the development process is custom work. So far, we’ve been talking about tooling that is created upon the initiative of the company, albeit with customer feedback playing a role. But Vermeer also is asked for custom-made tooling.

A lot of times, those requests are the result of personal preference. A company or an individual operator may feel that certain features work best for them, but the piece of tooling is not mass-produced that way. After review and approval of the customer’s request, Vermeer will work to deliver on the request.

Vermeer will talk with the customer to better understand what they are trying to accomplish and why they feel what they are asking for — say, for example, a particular configuration on a reamer — is the best way to get there.

An engineer will develop a design based on the customer’s specifications, and that is shared with the customer and the dealer to ensure it’s what they envisioned. When they give a thumbs up, it goes to the factory floor for production.

Product launch

On non-custom jobs, there are different ways to launch a product after successful field testing. An important step is educating Vermeer dealership employees about the new tooling. They receive in-person and Web-based training to make sure they understand everything about the new product, including its features and benefits, maintenance and how to set it up for the customer.

“Customers really have a voice in the entire process, from ground zero to the final product,” said Mecham.

By the time new tooling reaches the field, numerous people have played a role in the process; from engineers to a research-and-development team, from inventory management and procurement employees to sales representatives, to the production employees on the various tooling lines in the factory.

Picking the right tooling

Whether it’s existing or new tooling, Mecham has some tips to help customers pick the right piece. First is the quality of the product. Scrutinize the craftsmanship and the material selection. And look for areas that will wear.

If it’s a piece that is in contact with the ground, like drills bits and reamers, examine the design of the surface. If carbide is applied, note how even and consistently it is applied.

Look at the quality of joints that have been welded or brazed. Are they smooth, or do they potentially have weak spots?

“Any time something is significantly cheaper, you need to ask yourself why,” said Mecham.

Also, be sure to know what kind of support and product knowledge the manufacturer and its dealers have.

Job specs also affect tooling selection. The type of drill that is used on a job will drive the size of tooling, as does the footprint of the jobsite. For example, different swivels and adaptors may be picked depending on the size of the bore and the footprint of the jobsite. Also, the size of the pit will affect how much room a crew has to change out tooling.

Making the wrong choice on tooling can have serious consequences.

“If the tooling is not aggressive enough for your ground conditions, you could end up in a circumstance where you actually get the product stuck in the ground and need to bring in an excavator and dig it up mid-bore,” said Mecham. “Or, if it doesn’t have the right steering capabilities for the ground conditions that you are in, you can veer from your intended path.”

For more information on HDD tooling, reach out to your local Vermeer dealer today.

Vermeer Corporation reserves the right to make changes in product engineering, design and specifications; add improvements; or discontinue manufacturing or distribution at any time without notice or obligation. Equipment shown is for illustrative purposes only and may display optional accessories or components specific to their global region. Please contact your local Vermeer dealer for more information on machine specifications.

Vermeer and the Vermeer logo are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries. © 2022 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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