Intelligence and dedication to the core positions Scientific Drilling International as the industry leader in high accuracy wellbore drilling
Our human fascination with navigation is eternal; it’s part of what makes us tick. It is also one of the most intriguing aspects of energy production, as complex and mystifying as journeying from the earth to the stars.
Dependent on absolute precision, wellbore drilling is not an endeavor for the timid. When Scientific Drilling International (SDI) produced the world’s first downhole electronic steering mechanism for wellbore navigation in 1969, it forever changed the industry, and set the company on the leading edge of innovation.
Today, SDI operates in more than 26 countries with over 40 locations, and is one of the top North American directional drilling service providers in market share. As the largest privately held directional drilling and wellbore placement company in the United States, SDI is the only company serving the energy services sector with a full complement of navigational solutions for virtually any type of directional drilling need in any environment.
In addition to working on some of the most complex oil and gas drilling projects ever undertaken on both the conventional and unconventional sides, SDI is an industry stalwart in the geothermal industry, having drilled over 520 directional wells and completed more than 1,150 production logging runs in the sector.
A well-established player in the mining space with a 25-year history of providing drilling, survey, and logging solutions to the industry, SDI is also a leader in freeze wall drilling, a shaft sinking technique that strengthens the ground around the hole being drilled.
The Houston-based firm designs, engineers, and builds highly sensitive and specific navigational and drilling instrumentation, including gyroscopic and magnetic borehole surveying instruments, gyroscopic and measurement while drilling/logging systems, and rotary steerable technologies. They also create pioneering drill motor designs and production logging systems.
SDI is the only company in the world that designs and produces the full suite of state-of-the-art sensors required by all of these technologies in-house. Over 90 scientists, engineers, and technicians work in SDI’s research and development centers in California, Texas, Germany, and Canada to create and produce the firm’s signature electronics and equipment.
“Scientific Drilling isn't just a directional drilling service provider. We are also a technology innovator, with exceptional Research & Development, Environmental Testing, and Product Support Engineering departments, whose focus is on the next generation of technology, reliability, and operational excellence in the field,” said Rob McKee, the company’s SVP of Manufacturing and Product Support.
“We provide downhole directional services and expertise directly to the client, and have people on-site for the jobs that are run. We have broad experience in the environment of the operators, from the big operating companies to the little independent oil companies, and our teams pride themselves in understanding exactly what our clients are looking for, what the environment is, and the challenges as this business becomes more efficient,” he added.
While the firm employs advanced manufacturing techniques, their highly engineered products are application-specific, produced in low volumes, and require significant craftsmanship to produce. “Almost everything that we do is hand-built and hand tested, with the utmost quality control. It's like building a Rolex watch rather than building high volume semiconductors or electronics,” he said.
“Our company is, in my mind, an industry leader in how we collect data, and approach the analytics,” he added. Paperless manufacturing that pulls in operational data, allows collection and analysis throughout the build and repair processes. “Regardless of where I am on a daily basis, I can look at my cell phone and see what our production department is putting out and what the yield rates are, which gives us the ability to take a risk-based approach to addressing issues.”
As the industry moves to the beat of “better, faster, cheaper,” wells must be drilled more rapidly and efficiently than ever before. Directional drilling makes it possible to drill multiple holes from a single pad site, without moving the drilling rig around. “You have long lateral wellbores that reach out for miles, which reduces the amount of surface equipment that’s needed,” McKee explained. “Everything sets in one place, and doesn't disturb the environment like it did years ago. Along with many other benefits, directional drilling is a great environmental leap forward.”
He pointed to hard rock drilling as a practice that requires increasing focus, and one of the industry’s primary challenges. “Increasing the speed of drilling in harder formations and the associated cost and reliability challenges due to extreme vibration conditions, seems to be one of the next major hurdles to achieving the client’s goals, so our R&D department, along with our Sustaining Engineering and Reliability teams, work together to make our technology meet the challenges of the application.”
“It's actually one of the advantages of our business model and our manufacturing model. Because we control the designs of our sensors and major downhole equipment, we can rebuild and redesign them to fit the application much easier than companies who rely on sensors off of the market and are basically tied to the performance of somebody else's technology.”
Recruited to work on NASA’s International Space Station Program, Systems Engineering Simulation (SES) team early in his career, McKee clearly relishes his work. “Scientific Drilling has some of the most reliable directional equipment on the market. Nobody rivals us on a daily basis,” he said. “That said, as soon as you make your name as the top directional equipment and service provider, they expect that performance regardless of whether the environment is changing, or you are putting new technology in the ground.”
Getting that new technology in the ground can be challenging in the notoriously risk-averse E&P sector, but in McKee’s estimation, it’s a challenge to be faced boldly. “Even though it sometimes takes years to truly penetrate the market, you have companies willing to put things in the ground simply to push the operating envelope. If you're not one of the companies showing that innovation, you quickly become second tier.”
“Although, the majority of the improvements in the market are baby steps—we take a lot of baby steps back to back, leveraging proven technology, so we are making small but significant improvements all the time,” he noted. “We’re moving very fast, and everything's a little bit of an improvement. In a year, or year-and-a-half, you make incremental strides.”
“The whole philosophy of staying ahead of the competition, in my mind, is integrated in the nature of what we do as a department and company. We have to or we fall behind,” he said, adding that the pace of well drilling is roughly ten times as fast as it was just a handful of years ago.
“If you watch some of the industry news, almost every other week there's some sort of record that's been set for drilling speed or length of lateral, and if you're not part of that you can become irrelevant pretty quickly.”
“Everybody is in constant brainstorming mode, constant Innovation mode. It's not that we all sit around at a table and brainstorm what the next process improvement or technology is, but it's such a high-speed environment that we are constantly analyzing the data brought back from the field and adjusting to meet the next environmental challenge. For incremental improvements, the data determines what the next generation is, whether that's extending the longevity of a current technology, building in a more robust manufacturing process, or just being able to overcome the next operating environment challenge. We really have to be ahead of that curve because this company is in the middle; otherwise we’re left behind. It is an exciting place to be, because everybody in the company is encouraged to be creative all the time.”
Controlling cost and non-productive time is essential in the sector, especially for midsize players like SDI, who compete with the Big Four: Halliburton, Weatherford, Baker, and Schlumberger. They thrive by providing a broader directional offering and outpacing a bevy of smaller firms who provide much weaker capabilities. “To play in that space we really have to be looking ahead continuously, simply because a company doesn’t have the resources to play catch-up in an industry where we’re trying to compete with behemoths. Our business model demands that we must, otherwise we fade back to smaller firms and end up in a niche space,” he mused.
“We could certainly sit back and just function in our space, but we pride ourselves on being on the leading edge. Anyone can quickly see that the innovation and excitement as an industry leader, and holder of such a significant piece of the market share in North America is what drives us. That's reflected in all of our manufacturing, repair, and technology development facilities. You can see it the minute you walk in the door.”
Scientific Drilling International was founded in Houston, TX in 1969. Since then, the company has grown to be a leading provider in the global wellbore navigation services market as well as the US directional services market. SDI’s presence reaches over 26 countries and nearly 40 locations, being the only company to offer a proprietary, complete wellbore construction and placement solution that includes Directional Drilling, combining drilling motors and Rotary Steerable Systems (RSS), Measurement While Drilling (MWD), Logging While Drilling (LWD), gyroMWD, high accuracy Gyro Survey, and a comprehensive suite of Active and Passive Ranging technologies.
Scientific Drilling International serves a diverse range of customers in all energy sectors. Besides participating in some of the most complex conventional and unconventional oil and gas projects in the world, Scientific Drilling also has extensive experience in working on geothermal wells and drilling horizontal laterals in coalbed methane reservoirs.