- May 24, 2019
Canadians manufacturers are known for their ability to tackle challenges that come their way; for a Canadian machine shop in Alberta and one in Ontario, the challenges are quite large.
Chris Higdon needed a better way to make subs. Short for subassemblies, subs are threaded adapters used in the oil and gas industry to connect different components and perform various functions. A float sub, for instance, houses a one-way valve that controls backflow within the drill string. A lift sub does what its name implies, allowing well operators to lift heavy tool assemblies out of the well. And a crossover sub simply joins drill pipes with dissimilar sizes and threads.
Higdon, the Canadian regional manager for Drilling Tools International Inc. (DTI), makes all of these and more, but it was the need for efficient production of UBHO subs (Universal Bottom Hole Orientation) that led him in late 2018 to purchase a Haas Automation ST-55 two axis CNC lathe from Western Canada HFO (Haas Factory Outlet) distributor Thomas Skinner Machine Tools Inc.
Big bores and big tools
Boasting a 1000 rpm, 41 kw (55 hp) spindle, 318 mm (12.5 in.) bar capacity, 12-station turret, maximum cutting diameter of 648 mm (25.5 in.), and workpiece lengths up to 2032 mm (80.0 in.), the ST-55 was a perfect but substantially larger complement to the shop’s existing Haas equipment, a pair of TL-3B (big bore) tool room lathes.
“We use the smaller lathes mainly for threading and repair work, but we build a variety of different downhole tools with the ST-55,” he says. “These include drill collars, stabilizers, and of course lots of subs. And because we cater to the directional drilling industry, many of these are UBHOs.”
You can think of an UBHO sub (also called a muleshow) as a piece of tubing that sits between a hydraulic drill motor and an MWD (Measurement While Drilling) tool, and helps the operator to accurately steer the drill head. Depending on the application, this tubing might be a foot or so in diameter and several times that in length, and constructed of 4145 heat-treated steel or a non-magnetic alloy such as Monel.
Supporting the Western provinces is a relatively new venture for the Houston-based DTI. Formerly known as Directional Rentals, this 30-year old provider of downhole tools opened its Nisku, AB facility just four years ago, a time that Higdon describes as starting at the bottom of the market. “There was nowhere to go but up,” he says. “Business has been fairly consistent, and I’ve been happy with the Haas equipment, especially the ST-55. It’s been a good machine.”
Lumar Machining and Manufacturing Ltd. is another shop with a new and supersized CNC lathe on its production floor. Company president Ian Wagter says he bought the Okuma LU4000 EX at IMTS 2018, intending to use the two axis, 15-in. chuck machine to turn a series of hydraulic cylinders used on 787 airliner cargo doors. (EMEC Machine Tools is the Ontario distributor for Okuma.)
Unfortunately, the work dried up shortly after first-article inspection. “We were supposed to produce around 30 to 60 pieces a month, but the division we were working with was sold off,” Wagter says. “I’m not worried about it though. We had other reasons for buying the new machine besides that one job, and with our push into oil and gas, the additional capacity is going to get eaten up pretty quickly.”
Wagter explains that Lumar has been in a state of transition almost since the day in 2000 that he and his father bought what was then a small manual machine shop. The Wagters purchased their first machining centre—an Okuma—in 2005. They continued to invest in CNC equipment through the recession and beyond, including a pair of Okuma MC-V4020 mills, a Captain L370 lathe followed by an L470 C axis machine, and an LB4000 EX Y axis mill/turn. Through it all, the father and son team worked to diversify Lumar’s customer base away from its legacy, all-automotive business strategy into one that includes oil and gas, nuclear, mining and more.
Today the company employs 33 people and operates three shifts. It moved to a new, 2300 sq m (25,000 sq ft) facility in 2012. The senior Wagter has since retired, but general manager Peter Bowers came on board shortly after the new building’s construction, and “has done a phenomenal job” of helping to grow the business. As a result, Lumar enjoyed 35 per cent growth during each of the past four years, with 2019 looking equally promising.
Wagter and Bowers have tried to differentiate Lumar from other machine shops by focusing on large parts, another reason for purchasing the LU4000 EX. Their strategy is working. Even though the aerospace cylinder order dried up soon after the installation, Wagter says the 22 kW (30 hp), 4200 rpm machine has been kept plenty busy.
“The other day we were drilling 2.375-inch holes just over 16 inches deep in 15-5 PH stainless, and the operator was able to double the feed rate compared to the last time we ran the part,” Wagter says. “At first, he thought there was something wrong with the machine. For the bigger jobs, the guys are definitely leaning towards the LU4000 EX. It has way more guts, the milling capabilities are quite good, and because the steady rest can be attached to the lower turret and doesn’t have to be positioned manually, we’ve been able to save a lot of time. It’s really proving itself.”
Before purchasing the LU4000 EX, the company had begun diversifying its shop floor along with its customer base. Still, Wagter says he has a special place in his heart for Okuma, and will continue to invest accordingly. “They might cost a little more, but they just run and run and run.” SMT