Piling Canada

A New Outlook

Watson Drill Rigs charts a new path for the future with the introduction of CAT-based hydraulic rotary machines
Written by Mark Halsall
September 2020

Watson Drill Rigs charts a new path for the future with the introduction of CAT-based hydraulic rotary machines

In 2009, one of the best-known names in North America’s drilled shaft industry, Watson Drill Rigs, became part of the Trevi Group of companies.

Ten years later, the Watson clan, which started their family business in Fort Worth, Texas, nearly 100 years ago, repurchased Trevi’s majority share. While the Watson family never stopped managing the company, regaining full ownership restores the Watsons’ ability to direct the company’s future.

Doug Watson, president and CEO of Watson Drill Rigs, who along with his father David, bought out the Trevi Group’s ownership share in December 2019, says the move enables his fourth-generation manufacturing firm to get back to what’s always been a core strength – its personal connections with customers.

“With Watson Drill Rigs being fully family-owned again, this allows us to ensure direct relationships with our customers rather than being pressured to put in middlemen. That’s what the company was built on – that direct feedback loop between the company and the customer,” Doug said.

“This allows us to continue to do business the way we believe in. We are now autonomous again and we can go back to our roots of building tough machines, providing lifelong factory-direct support and making sure that we have those close-knit relationships with customers.”

Watson Drill Rigs offers a diverse lineup of truck- and crawler-mounted drilling rigs with mechanical and hydraulic rotary torque capacities ranging from 40 to 300 kilonewton-metres (30,000 to 220,000 foot-pounds). They are used for a wide range of construction applications in the foundation, utility, oilfield, transportation and earth retention industries.

Rather than working through dealerships, Watson Drill Rigs distributes its machines through a network of five sales representatives covering the U.S., and Canada.

According to Doug, Canada has always been an important market for Watson Drill Rigs.

“We’ve sold a lot of foundation rigs in Canada over the years, in fact our prototype crawler-mounted rig, the first 1000-CM, was sold to Ontario Hydro in 1967,” said Doug, adding that the Alberta oil patch in particular has been good for business as well.

“John Monroe ignited our rathole business in Canada in the 1990s. Of course, rathole rigs all started when a character named Junior Harris walked in our doors in 1977, asking for some peculiar modifications to a truck rig,” Doug said.

Tony Kraut, sales manager for Watson Drill Rigs, said, “We’ve got a lot of Watson rigs up in Canada, and we have a very positive reputation, which all stemmed from giving the customer what they are asking for.”

Listening to customers

According to Doug, clients have always had the company’s ear and there’s often been improvements to equipment made based on customers’ suggestions.

“One of the key elements of not having dealers is that our customers are only a phone call away from our engineers,” he said.

Another way Watson Drill Rigs stands out is that it will customize drill rigs to suit their client’s specific needs.

“We’re a custom manufacturer. There’s not many manufacturing companies like ours out there that do this,” said Kraut.

“Because we have a direct interface with our end users, we are able to get good feedback from them on their applications and on some of the limitations and challenges they face, and we can customize our equipment to meet those needs.

“This kind of business to business market communication opportunity is invaluable.”

Doug says having the company back in his family’s hands means it’s been freed up to address the shifting preference in much of the construction market from mechanical to hydraulic drilling rigs.

Proof of that is a brand-new model being introduced by Watson Drill Rigs this year. The 7300 rig is a CAT-based, “European-style” hydraulic rotary machine that expands upon the tried and true mechanical rigs that Watson built its reputation on and is so well known for.

“Fully developing the new movable, rotary, hydraulic machines really is where our focus is right now,” said Doug.

“There are absolutely advantages to the hydraulic machines that we’re now producing. The goal is to provide a drilling rig that is simpler and faster than current hydraulic machines and has the toughness and capabilities matched to the challenges of the North American market.”

Weighing 50,000 kilograms, the 7300 is mounted on a next-generation excavator base built by CAT and has a tested rotary torque of 190 kilonewton-metres (140,000 foot-pounds) while the nominal torque is 224 kilonewton-metres (165,000 foot-pounds).

The 7300’s long mast configuration can drill to depths of up to 47 metres, but the unique short mast design combines patent-pending Kelly bars with a top drive rotary to achieve long mast depths of 27 metres with a short mast rig under 8.4 metres tall.

Other features of the 7300 hydraulic rig include:

  • Full travel top crowd system: drills in less time with no outer bar locks.
  • Boom forward short mast: eliminates all folding/pinning mechanisms.
  • Removable self-erecting counterweight: can be assembled and disassembled easily.
  • Pilot-controlled hydraulic control system: diagnostics are simplified by isolating the drill from the excavator.
  • Tri-drive rotary: achieves maximum torque and maximum spinoff without clutches or gear-shifting.
  • QuickLock round Kelly bars: six times the wear area and no hunting for locks.
  • Interchangeable heavy-duty Kelly bars: allows operators to swap-out round and square Kelly bars to match drilling conditions.
  • Rear-mounted winch: provides better rig balance and improved wire rope fleet angle.
  • Single-layer grooved winch drum: provides full pull at all depths with minimal rope wear.
  • Controlled freefall Kelly winch: features two-speed full pull that improves cycle times and prevents over-spooling.

Watson’s new 7300 drilling rig was unveiled at CONEXPO-CON/AGG, the construction industry trade show held in Las Vegas, Nev., last March.

“It was very well received. It’s always good to be innovative and come up with new products like this one,” said Kraut.

“It’s a powerful, very mobile rig. It can [be] used as a short mast, so it can meet the needs of the power line contractor with a height-constrained jobsite. You can also put a tall mast on it for those deep hole applications.

It has some positioning advantages that will serve the operators well in multiple conditions and environments.”

Kraut, who says the plan is to eventually offer customers a choice of hydraulic rigs in different sizes, notes that the 7300 machine is being put to the test at a customer’s construction jobsite.

“We’re getting performance statistics for it in a daily production application and this will provide some good feedback on what the machine can do,” he said.

Kraut believes that this in turn will enable potential buyers to make a better, more informed decision when choosing their next hydraulic rig.

Mechanical rigs

Doug emphasizes that the company hasn’t forgotten its roots and he firmly believes there’s still a place for mechanical drilling rigs in the construction industry.

“Mechanical machines have more feel and can drill faster than the hydraulic rigs. In the right conditions, they are the most productive machines out there,” Kraut said.

“Many companies like to have them for certain types of work because they know that matching [mechanical rigs] to the right jobs enable them to get the job done faster and make more money as a result.”

Doug says his company remains fully committed to customers who have purchased mechanical rigs from them in the past.

“There are well over a 1,000 machines out there today, still operating off of the traditional mechanical design and we feel supporting those is critical,” he said.

“We understand the importance of service and keeping parts for rigs that are 30 years old. You’ve got to still have parts for them sitting on the shelf.”

Watson says being able to build rigs that last that long relates directly to his company’s motto: Tougher, faster, simpler.

“Drilling is one of the most demanding machine applications out there. Breakdowns are always something you want to avoid, obviously. We build machines to take the punishment, day in and day out, and keep operating for decades rather than years,” said Doug.

‘Complexity is the enemy of reliability.’ All of our machines have a simpler design, so they break down less and it’s easier to get them back up and running when things do go wrong.

“Our machines have been developed to do the job faster. They set up faster, they swing faster, they drill faster … all those elements where you can save time during the daily operation and get in and out of the job more quickly.”

Kraut agreed, “Our drills are made for fast cycle times, which is the time it takes to bring a load of material from the bottom of the hole up to the surface, clear the auger and then start the process again.” 

A Family Affair

Watson Drill Rigs’ origins trace back to when Verne Watson established the Fort Worth House Moving Company in his Texas hometown following the First World War.

Doug Watson, Verne’s great-grandson, and current CEO and president of Watson Drill Rigs, describes his great-grandfather as “the industrious, entrepreneurial type who really got everything going.”

Verne expanded the business and began moving all kinds of large structures, using his exceptional mechanical skills to build his own moving equipment including cranes to assist with heavy loads.

Verne’s son, Jack, trained to become a mechanical engineer and eventually took over the family business, which shifted its focus to drilled shaft foundation work.

The company changed its name to the Watson Foundation Company in the 1940s and primarily operated as drilling contractors while developing drill rigs for their own use.

The name later changed to Watson Incorporated, and eventually the company left contracting behind to focus on building rigs while leveraging all the knowledge gained as contractors.

Following in Jack’s footsteps was his son David, who joined the family business in the late 1960s after studying as a mechanical engineer. He led Watson Drill Rigs until his son, Doug, began to take on a leadership role in 2012.

Doug, who like his father and grandfather is also a mechanical engineer, says his dad serves as chairman of the board and remains quite active in all aspects of the business.

Doug says the spirit of innovation instilled by his grandfather Jack, and the drive to serve the customer established by his father David, both persist in the business culture of Watson Drill Rigs.

He says that both he and his dad are grateful to be part of a successful fourth-generation family operation, especially one within the unpretentious world of foundation drilling.

“We’re very proud of our history and of our longevity,” Doug said.

Doug graduated university in 1998, but says he didn’t join Watson Drill Rigs right out of school, opting instead to work for another Texas company, National Instruments, before joining the family business in 2002.

“I was always certain that I would go to work for the family company since I grew up around it,” he said. “But I didn’t want to just jump in right out of school because I felt like it wouldn’t provide much perspective on the rest of the business world.”

Doug says as a result of that experience with another company, he was able to bring a fresh perspective to the family business and change a few things up, such as bringing in new engineering ideas, an increased emphasis on internal processes and manufacturing efficiency improvements.

“Above all, I learned how important the people and the culture they create are to a company’s success,” he said. “I constantly strive to improve how we serve our customers while making sure we don’t lose the heart and the loyalty that makes this company great.” 🍁

Category: Profile

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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