Next Gen’s Drilling Rig

Innovative advancements simplify drilling.

By Mike Price

As the water well industry enters a new decade, the common issue facing many drilling firms of recruiting the next generation of workers will become more intense.

Versa-Drill/Laibe Corp.’s new V-12 water well and geothermal drilling rig.

While the baby boomer generation is working longer these days (25% of U.S. workers will be 55 and over by 2024), the impact of a labor shortage is still expected. Simply put: There just aren’t enough skilled Gen X and millennial workers to fill the shoes of the more than 75 million baby boomers who will retire soon.

Surveying the industry’s most pressing challenge, Versa-Drill/Laibe Corp. purposefully designed its new V-12 water well and geothermal drilling rig with the next generation of workers in mind. The drilling rig manufacturer from Indianapolis, Indiana, uses new technology to simplify how to run the rig.

“The more advancements you put in your drill rig, one, you make more money; but two, it’s easier to train people,” says Versa-Drill/Laibe Engineering Manager Stephen Gessner. “It gives customers the ability to hire more people.”

In production for more than a year, Versa-Drill debuted the V-12 at the 2019 South Atlantic Jubilee in July. The most compact rig Versa-Drill has yet to make provides up to 12,000 pounds of pullback and 7000 pounds of pulldown, with no commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate. To close out the year, the V-12 was at Groundwater Week 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada, along with a display stand set up with the new style driller control console in a powered demo mode.

“We got a lot of good feedback and came home with many leads and quote requests,” says Marcus X. Laibe, president. “Customers were most interested in the capability of this rig since the size of the rig is much smaller than our other models and all were pleasantly surprised at the power and capabilities of the rig, all while maintaining underweight of the gross vehicle weight rating of the truck.”

Advanced technology in agricultural and construction heavy machinery has driven the mobile construction equipment market in recent years but has been slow to transition to the water well market.

“We as an industry really haven’t moved in that direction,” observes Gessner who formerly worked on booster compressors and was raised on a farm. “I think the time is now to do that.”

Electronic Controls

The V-12’s operator’s panel with electronic controls in place of hydraulic controls. Photos courtesy Versa-Drill/Laibe.

The V-12 features a simplified operator’s panel (see photo to the right) with electronic controls in place of hydraulic controls with CANBUS (Controller Area Network) connectivity.

Through the programmable logic controller (PLC), Gessner’s four-person team wrote computer code and introduced advancements to the drilling rig. It has enabled custom programmable features as well as provides troubleshooting error codes for more efficient diagnosis of problems.

With electronic controlled features, the operator’s panel was designed to be simple and straightforward to learn. For example, buttons on the operator panel are outlined in white light to show what’s on or flash to show problems or warnings.

How one trains an operator led to the addition of a speed sensor being put in an axial piston motor on the top head rather than a gearbox (which also reduces cost and weight). The 7-inch video display shows the rpms that are running.

“From a training aspect, if you’re going through this formation and you’re told you should set it at about this speed when you’re drilling, how do you say ‘about this speed’ without knowing how fast you’re actually going?” says Gessner, who has been with Versa-Drill/Laibe for five years. “It seems so simple, but it’s not something we’ve done in our industry.

“If I can tell my helper, the next 20 feet make sure we’re drilling at 200 rpms, that’s what we want to do. We want to introduce this technology so that we can basically guide people to do their job better.”

The video display shows standard gauge information (engine rpms, transmission temperature, engine oil level, etc.), but other information such as compressor psi, string weight, rotation speed, and how much weight is on the bit can be found by toggling to either the “drilling” or “engine” screen.

Like choosing apps on a smartphone, Gessner says thevideo display can be configured per the operator’s preference so they can choose what they want displayed on their respective screen.

As mentioned above, rotation speed can be monitored; however, there is no bit detection or automation. The interface does not control the penetration rate. Gessner says technology exists that would enable measuring penetration rate, but it would double the cost of the direct-drive feed cylinder. If a customer requests it, he says it will add it to the rig, but it’s not available on the general stock rig buildup.

With the PLC, Gessner says safety features (more on this later) can be built in with a couple lines of computer code while keeping the mechanics of the machine simple.

Marcus X. Laibe

“That is the true benefit of this,” he says.

David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, president of Bergerson-Caswell Inc. in Maple Plain, Minnesota, runs four Versa-Drill rigs that are electronic control over hydraulic. His company began using them in 2006 and has purchased five additional drilling rigs since then, all with similar control schemes.

“We sold two,” says Henrich, who served as president of the National Ground Water Association in 2018, “and one of the new owners thinks it’s remarkable how easy it is to operate and work on. Hindsight being what it is, he now can’t understand why he was ever concerned with converting.”

Henrich says he looks for electronic over hydraulic control in anything the company purchases. “If it doesn’t have it, I almost won’t even consider buying it. You can do so much more with your control schemes once you get away from direct hydraulic control. I think it has made equipment less labor intensive, safer, and frankly, more organized.”

Stephen Gessner

It’s been a mixed experience for Henrich when training his crew on electronic controls.

“The first person we had on the back of our rigs wanted to run it like a table drive and got very frustrated with it,” he says. “The next operator we put on it was more inclined to adapt his process and has done some very remarkable things with the equipment both in terms of projects and production.

“I would say it really all depends on whether the person operating it is willing to adapt a few procedures to maximize the positives of the drill.”

Safety and More

Gessner says moving to advanced technology on a drilling rig means major improvements in keeping the operator safe on the jobsite.

“To me, it’s all about safety,” he says. “Everybody has the right to go to work and then go home every night without anything wrong with them.

“The big thing to me is that we can introduce a lot of safety with this drill rig because it’s so much easier to write a line of code or put a delay on something so that a guy has to think before he does something.”

For example, Gessner says when switching from compressor mode to mud pump mode, if a new trainee accidentally bumps equipment, time delays on switch functions can be added. Or when raising or lowering the derrick, an alarm can be sent to notify everyone on the jobsite.

The V-12 uses Versa-Drill’s Inverted Direct Drive feed system (patent pending) and supports 20-foot lengths of drill rod with 3-inch diameter using a 7-rod carousel. It features a camera on top of the carousel which automatically turns on whenever the operator gets another rod out of the carousel, eliminating the need to look up every time. The operator can see the tool joint and how their wrench is interacting with it.

The Inverted Direct Drive feed system has no cables, pulleys, or rack and pinion. This reduces weight on the derrick assembly. Its variable-speed, variable-torque top head is rated at 350 rpm and 2242 pounds-foot of torque, and it features 23 feet of top head travel.

To level the rig, the V-12 has four 25-inch independently controlled leveling jacks with a digital inclinometer leveling system (mounted in middle of the rig) to ensure the rig is correctly positioned.

“Whenever your rig gets out of level, the button of the right rear jack might say hit me up or give me a warning; you’re no longer dependent on a level,” Gessner says. “We all know you can have washouts and might not know or realize you’re not level. That type of safety and awareness is what we’re trying to build into the control panel.”

LED night lights assist the operator in low-light jobs. Another advantage via electronic controls is found in fuel efficiency where the operator can reduce power when necessary.

“We call it load sense hydraulics because essentially we don’t want full power being pulled from the engine at all times. It allows the engine to run a little easier.”

The V-12 comes mounted on a Ram 5500 Tradesman 4×4. It has a 6.7-liter, 360 hp Cummins diesel and a six-speed automatic Aisin HD transmission. Overall, the unit is 7.5 feet wide and 28.5 feet long, with a derrick height of 30 feet up and 9 feet, 4 inches down.

Through the PLC, Versa-Drill offers telematics technology to track the V-12. For a monthly service charge, one can tap into the drilling rig to see how many hours are on it, drilling speed, troubleshooting error codes, and more.

The ability to troubleshoot remotely was well received by attendees at Groundwater Week 2019, Laibe says. “Customers are welcoming the new technology and liked hearing about our ability to troubleshoot and quickly fix field issues or customize the controls to a customer’s needs.”

Says Henrich: “Remote diagnostics is almost a no-brainer; if you can deduce the problem remotely, then you can show up for the repair prepared. Makes too much sense.”

The remote capability also gives Gessner’s service technicians the ability to remote troubleshoot rigs over the phone.

“That definitely will be a huge help in our industry,” he says. “The real interest is not from the owner/operator because they’re by their rig every day, but there are a few customers in our industry who have a fleet (10 to 15 rigs) and those owners want the ability to know where their equipment is, if it’s running, and if it’s running efficiently. They want that information because it helps them build their business even more. If they grow, we grow.”

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According to Gessner, roughly 4000 hours from him and his four-person team went into the design and buildup of the V-12. He understands some having questions over the price of the new drilling rig with so much new technology on it.

However, Gessner says the price of technology has decreased due to the agricultural and construction vendors driving Versa-Drill’s vendors to lower its prices.

“That’s why the time is now to get into it because it saves you money more so than it hurts you,” he says. “That’s a big thing too.”


Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at mprice@ngwa.org, or at (614) 898-7791,
ext. 1541.