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Drilling supply vets find their edge

After long careers with global drilling supply companies, John Daniels, Steve Boesche and Dave Liberty could have put their feet up and settled into a life of golf, travel and margaritas. Instead, they pooled their considerable knowledge, experience and savings to start Drillers Edge, a North Bay manufacturer of diamond drill bits and core barrels.

Daniels worked his way through the ranks at Boart Longyear, serving as operations manager in North Bay and in other senior roles in Australia, Ireland and Mississauga, Ontario. Boesche managed Boart Longyear’s diamond products division in North Bay for eight or nine years, then went on to serve as area manager for Latin America, while Liberty, a mechanical engineering technologist, put in 15 years with Boart Longyear.“Now, we’re doing a lot of the things we’ve done for many years, but we’re doing it for ourselves,” said Boesche. “The time in our lives is right. We have the experience, we have the international contacts and we know and trust each other as business partners.”The trio couldn’t have chosen a better time to go into business. With the price of gold at an all-time high and base metals holding their own, the demand for diamond drilling supplies is huge.“The key characteristic of our business is that it’s very cyclical,” said Daniels. “Mining itself is cyclical, but exploration is even more so. If commodity prices go down, a company still has to mine, but they don’t necessarily have to explore for more orebodies, so the first thing that gets cut is exploration. The reverse is also true. If commodity prices rise, there’s a mad rush for product.”Core barrels” The company was founded in February 2010 and initially focused on designing and manufacturing a line of core barrels. The technology used for retrieving core samples is mature and protected by patents, but Drillers Edge found a way to differentiate its core barrel and overshot assemblies. The resulting product provides the same level of performance and reliability without infringing on patents, and offers customers more options.Drillers Edge began manufacturing diamond drill bits in January 2011, focusing on customization as a way to differentiate itself.“We’re small enough that we can customize a solution, whereas the big players will have difficulty doing that because they’re focused on huge volume,” said Boesche. “We like to take a very focused approach and develop a specific product for a specific project.”Bit design is determined by the type of rock that’s being drilled,” said Boesche.“There’s no standard for rock. It could be anything from sand or clay to the hardest rock on the planet. There’s hardness, abrasiveness and the condition of the rock. It could be fractured or competent. The other thing that varies is the size of the hole being drilled. If the ground is very fractured, we typically use a larger diameter tool to capture the sample.”Other variables include the depth of the hole, the type of rig and the experience of the drillers. All of these factors are taken into consideration to produce the best possible bit for a given set of circumstances.Bit lifeThere’s a fine balance between productivity and bit life, said Boesche.“You can have a bit that takes an hour to cut three metres of rock, or you can have a bit that will cut three metres of rock in five minutes. Of course, customers want the maximum life and the fastest drilling bit they can get, so we have to strike that balance.“When a customer calls us, we try to get as much information as possible about the project, the rig type and the experience of their operators. If their operators are not experienced, we may give them a more durable product to start with that can’t be overdrilled or damaged, so they’ll have a good starting base to work from, then gradually improve the penetration rate with other selections.”The type of drill rig being used is also important, said Daniels.

“If you have a big, heavy drill rig capable of drilling 3,000 metres versus a small rig that you fly in with a helicopter and that only drills 500 metres, we wouldn’t sell the same bit.”

The company is only a few years old, but already supplying product to customers in Canada, the United States, South America, Africa and Australia.

“It’s a very competitive market, but a lot of it is based on trust and relationships,” said Daniels. “Our experience and our global contacts over a period of 25 years have certainly helped. Some of the field technicians and geologists we worked with years ago now own their own drilling companies. We’ve known them for 25 years and they trust us to supply quality products at a competitive price.”

The maple leaf emblazoned on Drillers Edge drill bits was specifically requested by South American customers to identify them as being quality products designed and manufactured in Canada.

“They were adamant about having something representing Canada on the product because Canada’s reputation for quality still carries a lot of weight,” said Daniels.

Aside from being home, North Bay is the perfect place to be in the core drilling supply business, said Boesche.

“North Bay is recognized as a core drilling tools manufacturing centre of excellence in the world. There isn’t a city in the world where there are more drill rods being produced.”

Drillers’ Edge is still small compared to some of its more established competitors, but looks smaller than it is because of its strategy of farming out work to subcontractors as much as possible.

“We want to make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Daniels. “We subcontract everything we can. There are hundreds of machine shops from which we can source quality components, but most of the labour-intensive bit manufacturing is done in-house.”

The company has 10 employees, and continues to grow as the customer base expands and the order book fills up.

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