Sonic Drilling: The ‘Wave of the Future’
Terra Sonic International, a leader in sonic drilling rig manufacturing, recently welcomed a new president. Vince Trotta, who is based in the company’s corporate headquarters in Marietta, Ohio, is responsible for overseeing all aspects of business in his new role. That includes sales, engineering, purchasing, inventory, production, logistics and more. Trotta is focused on developing strategies that bring additional productivity to existing customers while also looking for new markets into which the company can expand.
His professional career started in the heavy equipment industry 30 years ago as an electrical engineer at GE, where he designed electric motors, generators and control systems. Because some of the systems were designed for dump trucks used in open-pit mining, Trotta says the mining industry caught his attention. He went on to spend over six years focused on the global mining industry, selling haul trucks equipped with the GE drive system. Before joining Terra Sonic, he spent five years as a sales leader at Boart Longyear, focusing on mineral exploration, environmental and some geotechnical markets. “It started with industrial equipment, I got hooked on mining and then evolved into drilling equipment in the mining segment,” Trotta says. He looks forward to serving as a leader at Terra Sonic and says it will be important to continue everything that is working while always keeping an eye out for expansion opportunities.
National Driller recently interviewed Trotta on what his plans are for Terra Sonic International, what’s new in sonic drilling and what role he sees the technology playing as time goes on.
Q. What are your plans as the new president of Terra Sonic? What do you bring to the company and what are some of your top goals?
A. First and foremost on my list of goals here is really to listen and learn. The company’s rich heritage, product innovation, reliable equipment design and customer service, all of which the industry talks about are a fantastic way, are worth learning and understanding. I’ve just got to listen and understand what makes this company as successful as it has been over the years. Then, after that’s all done, I think my goals are pretty straightforward. Number one, we’ve got to remain focused on supporting our existing base of contractors, drillers and miners, and other users of our products; we can’t take our eye off that group of people. Number two is to expand the customer base for our sonic products and services. We’ve got to continue to find new customers and new places around the world to use our products. Then finally, expand the variety of sonic energy products and services we can provide globally. Where else can what we do in the drilling industry make sense in other industries and other markets?
Q. Why this role now? What made you make the move?
A. This role at TSi gives me the opportunity to leverage my background of leading a variety of distinct teams providing products and services into taking an entire team with differentiated products and services that’s really searching for new customers, adjacent markets. They want someone that’s kind of been there, done that. Someone that understands what it takes to get there and can see what an industrial products and services business looks like in an established market and overseas markets, for example. So they brought someone in who knows what that future can be and now has to just work with the team here to take the steps necessary to get from point A to point B.
Q. What key challenges come with your new role as president?
A. There are always challenges. Most of them are expected by this stage in one’s career. But, for me, the challenge is balancing the competing time demands, for attention to current equipment production, sales opportunities [and] new business ventures. Also, I’m relocating my family 2,600 miles. So all of that combined has been the biggest challenge so far. However, it’s all part of the role and it’s not really a surprise; it just needs to be done.
Q. How would you characterize the current state of sonic drilling?
A. Being around sonic drilling for the last 10 years, I’d have to say that it continues to gain interest from the traditional markets where it’s used and from customers who are transitioning from less efficient drilling methods, like hollow stem auger for example. Once a contractor has used sonic drilling technology, they never go back and revert to older methods, and they usually expand their investment in sonic drill rigs and sonic drilling equipment. It’s really a matter of getting the story out there, explaining the advantages of sonic drilling, and getting our existing customers to talk to their peer groups and share the advantages they’re seeing from our product.
Q. What gains have been made to the durability of sonic drilling and what do they mean for the drilling industry?
A. The refinements in the production of the sonic head in particular, and refinements we’ve made in reliability, assembly and even the servicing on an overhaul basis of the system, are making it much more productive for customers and less costly for them to maintain. Our culture of listening to customer needs ensures that our best system in the sonic drilling industry will continue to get better. That, in itself, is turning heads and convincing people to try sonic drill rigs. … For the industry, it means that rig is operating, the engine is running and the sonic oscillator is operating more hours a day, more days of the week and more weeks of the year than it was 10 years ago. That all translates into more billable time for our contractors and then, from the capability standpoint, they’re going to be able to continue to produce the in situ samples that their clients are expecting. So it all just translates to more productivity and profitability for the contractors who choose to use sonic drilling.
Q. What other key advancements stand out in your mind with respect to sonic drilling technology?
A. You can’t overlook the incremental advancements we just talked about in the head, as well as the rig reliability. From one year to the next they don’t look very substantial, but when you step back and you look at 10 or 15 or even 20 years of that improvement, it’s a step function. It’s night and day. The heads last much longer, the cost to repair is much less and the logistics required to support those sonic drill rigs are much more efficient. We’ve also added diamond coring capabilities, soil penetration test capability and safety barriers, for example, that are required in the mining industry.
Q. I’ve heard that a lot of people still don’t understand what sonic drilling is. Is this something you see? If so, any plans for how to address this challenge?
A. More than not understanding the capabilities of sonic drilling, some of our clients also tell us that there are barriers to their growth that they’re seeing. Our client’s growth and our growth are contingent on the industry finding and or training more skilled sonic drillers. Operating a sonic drilling rig properly is a very different skill than operating your standard core drilling or auger drill rig. So the availability of people that do that well is a limiting factor in the growth of sonic, number one. I think that the best thing we can do is continue to train operators, develop training programs and, most importantly, help our clients sell the capabilities of sonic to their end users and the people looking to use their services. So it’s a joint effort where we’ve got to help our customers sell the capabilities of sonic drilling. As we grow the pie, so to speak, that means our growth will also continue.
Q. What other challenges does Terra Sonic face, both as a sonic drilling manufacturer and service provider?
A. Most of the challenges we face are really fluctuations in the business activities of the markets we serve. So mineral exploration might be up, but geotechnical and environmental demands might be down. Fortunately, our products and services cut across many of those different markets at the same time, and all of them are never up and fortunately all of them are never down.
We have a good portfolio effect going among different segments and markets we serve. It’s rather important to note as well that we need to prove our credibility and reliability because of some other products in the industry that suffer from poor reliability or lack of service capability. They create a poor perception that must be overcome. A good percentage of our time is spent on explaining how our products and capabilities are different from others in the market.
Q. Are there any misconceptions or common concerns you hear from drillers about sonic drilling?
A. I think the perception of the product and its capabilities from 15, 20, 25 years ago carries some legacy baggage in the industry. Until enough people have used the new drill rigs, have seen them operate, have talked to their peers in the industry about how well they operate, that misconception will persist. Our job is to continue to reiterate the value of our sonic drill rigs and emphasize what differentiates them from lower quality products.
Q. What sets sonic drilling apart from other forms of drilling in your opinion?
A. There are really three things, and I call them the trifecta of sonic drilling. Number one is its in situ sampling capability. We don’t disturb the samples. Whatever type of ground conditions that exist, when the sample comes back, it reflects what’s underground. Nothing is washed away, and everything is there undisturbed in [the] layers that exist underground. I think that’s number one. Number two is there’s much faster drilling to depth in the segments that we serve when you’re using sonic capabilities. The oscillation process that we have, in effect, reduces the friction that the ground exhibits on the drill string, so it drills much, much quicker. Then I think the last one — and kind of the homerun for the sonic drilling industry that will provide even more enthusiasm for sonic drilling as time goes on — is really the less waste created by the drilling process. ... That environmental risk doesn’t exist with sonic. The system reduces the friction by virtue of the vibration of the drill stem, and it has nothing really to do with adding any water or any other drilling fluid to the environment. I think sonic drilling will continue to make gains as a drilling method because of its sensitivity to the environment.
Q. You’ve called sonic technology the wave of the future. Why is that? Where do you see demand for sonic drilling headed?
A. I think the advantages of sonic drilling are going to resonate with the growing environmental sensitivity community that’s out there. I think the reduced drilling footprint that sonic drilling provides and what I just described as less waste created in the drilling process — that is going to carry the day as time goes on and resonate more and more with our contractors, and not just with our contractors. Their customers are going to demand a reduced footprint when the drilling is completed and that no drilling waste is created in the process. So that’s what I look at as the wave of the future. That’s what’s defining what will be looked at as the best system out there.
Q. What role do you want Terra Sonic to play in the sonic drilling industry?
A. One of the reasons I joined goes directly to that. I want to be a part of the group that will continue to lead the industry in innovative products and services. I also believe that our focus on customer support will be the benchmark that others strive to look up to on a day-to-day basis. Those two simple things, I think, are what will guide Terra Sonic as it continues to grow and continues to support the sonic industry. Sonic drilling and sonic products are all we do. It’s not part of three dozen types of products that are provided. It’s our focus. Our engineers, our production team, our sales team are all focused on sonic technology, defining the best way to do it and making the refinements that make it better than it was two, three, four, 10 years ago. We are constantly working on ways to improve the sonic drilling experience for our customers.
Q. Any new company developments we should know about?
A. Our attention to customers and listening to them really helps us lead our product development. We had a customer recently in Alaska that bought a drill and then came all the way down from Alaska to see the drill and learn how to use it. In the valuable time that they’re here, we learn when they say, “What if it could do this?” or “Can it do that?” That’s where we get our product refinement and product enhancement list of to-dos, is from interactions like that. What I can tell you is we’re always working on refinements, but I’ll also tell you the competitive nature of the drilling industry is going to preclude me from divulging how these will change the industry, so you’re just going to have to stay tuned for those timely press releases.