Success breeds success as hardbanding service provider evolves into equipment vendor

Tech Energy capitalizes on energy boom, develops portable hardbanding machinery

The Tube & Pipe Journal July / August 2014
July 21, 2014
By: Eric Lundin

When Dave Milo set out to build a portable hardbanding unit, the former trucking company owner knew little about welding and nothing about hardbanding. After updating the hardbanding unit design a few times with consulting help from Lincoln Electric, Milo thinks he’s ready to change direction. Rather than providing hardbanding services, his goal is to sell hardbanding machines.

Although it looks tiny compared with the oil rig in the background, the portable hardbanding unit on the gooseneck trailer in the foreground can have a big impact on the operation’s profitability. Hardbanding downhole connections and components can triple or quadruple their service lives.

Below the rugged terrain of the western U.S. rests an abundance of fossil fuels that mankind recently developed the technology to harness. Drill rigs are the means to reach natural gas and oil deposits, and their use in western states has exploded since the 2009 recession. It’s rough duty, especially for the pipe and related components used in directional drilling. They need protection, and this is where Tech Energy Hardbanding and Fabricating, Grand Junction, Colo., comes in. Founded in 2007, the company specializes in hardbanding, the welding of alloy wire to downhole attachments such as drill-pipe joints and collars for abrasion protection.

“Colorado has close to 130 oil and gas drill rigs, and a pipe string for each rig can cost $1 million to $1.5 million,” said Dave Milo, Tech Energy president. “With more than $100 million of drill pipe in Colorado alone, not counting all of the directional tools and other components, such an investment must be protected. If we can place long-lasting hardbands, we can triple or quadruple the life of those drill strings.”

Tech Energy provides hardbanding for rigs not only in Colorado, but also in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and other western states. With more than 80 percent of its business outside Colorado, the company travels far and wide to protect drilling assets. Although traditionally a shop practice, on-site hardbanding of pipe from 4 to 8 inches in diameter via portable setups is Tech Energy’s stock-in-trade, and the reason Milo helped form the company with three partners (see Figure 1).

Today five employees, a pair of two-man crews and a shop foreman, operate out of the company’s Colorado headquarters. That number is expanding, however, as Tech Energy readies a second operation in Casper, Wyo. Central to expansion is the company’s commitment to using welding technology to improve its portable hardbanding process.

Lessons Learned From Initial Portable Hardbander

Tech Energy’s initial portable hardbander, created when the company was established, left plenty to be desired as an over-the-road system, according to Milo, who jokingly described it as “the most complex and expensive machine in the history of welding.”

Milo, who had owned a trucking company, admits he knew only a bit about welding and nothing about hardbanding when he formed the business along with another investor and two longtime hardbanders, and the learning curve was steep.

“That first machine was way too elaborate to be portable,” he said.

The unit, in a 32-foot-long, enclosed gooseneck trailer, included a pipe handling system and required almost a full acre of space for a hardbanding setup. To make things more difficult, the team lacked contacts in the oil and gas industry and had no orders. Despite all of these hurdles, work came in as the word spread.

“Within a month we went crazy with business,” said Milo.

Driven by increased business and the goal to expand the business beyond Colorado, Milo and his partner bought out the two hardbanding veterans and took lessons learned from the first portable hardbander project to set about creating a second machine.

Figure 1
A portable hardbanding unit takes shape. Tech Energy’s first unit was a skid-mounted behemoth, which made it difficult to reposition in the field. The company learned from that design and now makes smaller units mounted to trailers for easier over-the-road hauling and on-site repositioning.

They didn’t abandon the first machine; it’s still a critical company asset, but it’s no longer portable. These days it’s a stationary machine, doing hardbanding at the company’s headquarters.

Experience, Partnership Spell Success

The second machine, equipped with a Lincoln Electric power source and components from various other suppliers, was more compact and worked well for a couple of years, Milo said, but then exhibited feeding issues leading to weld defects. His contact at Lincoln Electric suggested replacing it with the company’s LN-10 wire feeder. Equipped with dual drive rolls, presettable voltage and feed speed, and selectable trigger control, the replacement did the trick, according to Milo.

The success of the second hardbander, which continues to operate in the field, spurred Tech Energy to reach further. It also led to a new role for Lincoln Electric, consultant, as Milo continued to develop new machines. The two companies’ rapport solidified when Milo met with Lincoln staff at the FABTECH® expo in 2012. Milo was looking for guidance in developing a new machine offering improvements in portability, dependability, and ease of use.

This third machine came closer

to Milo’s ideal vision (see Figure 2). It also led to a new business plan for him and Tech Energy. Taking the machine to North Dakota for work, Milo ended up selling it to an unlikely pair intent on making the most of the energy boom.

“One was an insurance agent and the other was a security guard,” Milo said.

The sale speaks volumes about the surge in oil and gas drilling in the region, and the relative inexperience of the buyers hints at Tech Energy’s efforts in making the machine user-friendly, even for novices.

“I sent my top manager to train these guys, and now they are doing well with it,” Milo said.

New Goal: Supply Industry With Portable Hardbanders

Over time Tech Energy’s business plan has evolved, as has its machinery. Rather than build and use portable hardbanders, Milo’s goal is to build and sell them.

The heart of the latest machine under development is a Lincoln Vantage® 500, an engine-driven, multiprocess welding unit. The diesel engine provides 500 amps of welding power at 100 percent duty cycle or 525 amps at 60 percent. It can produce as much as 12,000 watts of continuous single-phase AC generator power for common construction tools while simultaneously welding at 250 amps. The machine also produces 20,000 W of continuous 3-phase, 240-VAC power to run a plasma cutter (compressed air required), pump, or inverter-based welding unit for a second arc.

Figure 2
The goal in hardbanding, bonding an abrasion-resistant layer of material to the surface of a downhole connection or component, sounds straightforward, but it’s a complex task. The pipe must be clamped and rotated at the optimal speed; the welding unit must apply sufficient heat for proper penetration; and abrasion-resistant materials must be introduced to the weld puddle. Tech Energy’s experience in building portable hardbanders has enabled the company to reduce the size and complexity of its products.

The power generation capability of this next-generation portable hardbander is key for Tech Energy, because it must run all of the add-on equipment carried by company crews, including grinders, lights, and hydraulics. Milo also pointed to the welding unit’s ability to operate in extreme environments. With a block heater, crews will be able to start the unit and work when the temperature dips as low as 10 degrees F.

“With this welder, we don’t have a problem with power failure as we weld or add amps,” said Milo.

The unit runs to an LN-10 wire feeder that dispenses Lincoln’s SuperArc® L-56® 1⁄16-in.-dia. wire. During Tech Energy’s gas metal arc welding (GMAW) hardbanding process, carbide is introduced into the weld puddle via a hopper system. The process also introduces tungsten granules. These ingredients and method of delivery help ensure the even application of particles that increase wear resistance, which is of utmost importance in hardbanding.

Milo has yet to decide on a particular torch for this newest hardbander, but it will be controlled by a motorized slide-control system and weld oscillator system, both from Arc Products. The slide control will give the hardbander’s operators horizontal and vertical axis positioning for the welding arc, with manual control movement via an intuitive joystick pendant. The control is ideal for hardbanding because it is intended for repetitive welding applications to improve weld consistency and quality. The weld oscillator system provides side-to-side motion of the weld gun to produce an appropriate weave pattern in the joint. Together they provide the hardbander with automated motion for consistent welds.

The new portable hardbander also will employ a Lincoln CoolArc® 40 water cooler to cool the torch.

“We’ve tried to air-cool the torch, but the summer months are much too hot,” said Milo.

Tech Energy and Lincoln Electric also are partnering to incorporate an operator console that brings all welding control functions to a central location. This is expected to help ease system operation while increasing user safety by not requiring operators to reach over weld areas to make parameter adjustments.

Easier to Transport, Easier to Use

Through the entire evolution of Tech Energy’s portable hardbanders, Milo has strived for simple transport, ease of use, and dependability, and the third version, completed in early 2013 and now out in the field, has shown that his company is on the right track.

“Sometimes we’ll have to pull a hardbander to a rig location that’s 40 miles off of the beaten path on a logging road,” he said. “We’ve found that pulling a trailer unit into such a location is easier than hauling a skid-mounted unit. Also, if the rig slides or pipe is moved, we can relocate a trailer-mounted hardbander easily.”

In addition, the progression of portable hardbanders built by Tech Energy boasts weight reduction, an important consideration. The company’s first not-too-portable hardbander measured 32 ft. long and weighed 21,000 lbs. without any extra equipment or product. The latest unit will weigh less than 10,000 lbs., light enough to be towed by a single-axle full-sized pickup, not the 1-ton duallys required for previous setups. Less weight and smaller towing vehicles also eliminate the need for a commercial driver’s license and the increased regulations that follow.

“We wanted to design a compact and light machine that can hold all the components, wire and gases, and other equipment,” Milo said, noting that much of that goal will be achieved in the company’s newest model. “With the power source being compact and easy to place and maneuver, we can build a trailer that not only gives us the room to take extra product with us, but also is light and user-friendly.”

The new design also offers durability.

Tech Energy’s heavily computerized first unit experienced problems going on location due to vibration and fine dust that would damage the hardware. Excessive automation brought other problems too. Imagine the operators turning on the unit and sitting back to drink coffee, listen to music, and watch birds fly by, said Milo.

“All of a sudden we can have 14 bands where only three are required, or a horizontal band instead of a vertical,” he said, exaggerating but making an important point. “We purposely are building the new unit so that operators have to pay attention and manually step over the weld, for example. The result is much cleaner product and a more organized process.”

In practice, operators back a portable hardbander up to pipe racks. Pipe enters through the side, supported by two hydraulic jacks. A third jack sits on the other side of the through-hole welding box. Through-hole chucks hold and rotate the pipe. The actual hardbanding process takes about a minute and a half per band, Milo said. Tech Energy uses cooling cans and insulating wrap to provide proper cooling after hardbanding.

Improvements in portable hardbanding should keep Tech Energy humming, especially because the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that within the next five years, North America’s capacity of 3,487 capable drilling rigs will increase by 11 percent as operators continue developing shale resources.

As a specialist in nonmagnetic hardbanding, vital to ensure accuracy in directional and horizontal drilling that encompasses a large share of shale work, Tech Energy is positioned for growth. While others are striking oil, it appears that Dave Milo, a former trucking company owner only seven years into the business, has struck gold.

Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262

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