Drilling to new depths

Learn about how an Edmonton-based company produced record-setting subsea drills.

Learn about how an Edmonton-based company produced record-setting subsea drills.

by Caroline Fyvie

Daniel Teeuwsen is the Engineering Manager at MARL Technologies, a custom equipment manufacturer located in Edmonton, Alta. Having started his career at the organization in 2001, he has played an integral role in several interesting assignments throughout his tenure. At any given time, the team at MARL can be found designing and manufacturing custom and standard drilling equipment for customers across North America. MARL Technologies has sold equipment that’s been used in South America, the Beaufort Sea, and even Antarctica.

MARL Technologies started in 1977 and is tied closely with another Edmonton-based company, Mobile Augers and Research Ltd., founded in 1959 by Ronald W. Innes. Mobile Augers’ main area of expertise is geotechnical applications including soil testing and environmental investigations. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Innes began getting more work up in the Arctic and the machinery/equipment he used couldn’t handle the environmental conditions.

As Teeuwsen explains it, as the old saying goes, necessity was the mother of MARL’s invention. “The equipment that he (Innes) would be using would break down or have to be heavily modified, so he started making his own equipment. It was out of a need to produce equipment to supply the drilling business to be able to do the work that they were being asked to do.” Since then, MARL Technologies has been dedicated to producing reliable, robust equipment for unique and challenging drilling situations. Most of the equipment requests are for geotechnical drilling or environmental drilling, with some units made for geothermal installs.

In 2007, one particular customer, Gregg Marine, based out of California came forward with an exciting new request. The customer needed a remote-operated subsea drill that could operate at a depth of at least 3,000 metres to retrieve core samples. Teeuwsen and his team were up for the challenge and began working on the drill.

Teeuwsen (upper row, left) with the team at MARL Technologies.

Over the span of three years they completed the task, with a couple minor setbacks along the way. The financial crisis of 2008 put things on hold briefly, but Teeuwsen said the time gave his team a chance to refine their design, “It took a couple years to get through the whole process. There are good things that come out of a time when things slow down, we kept working on it and came up with some interesting ideas and refined the design a bit more. It was a different time for sure because there was a little uncertainty, but it wasn’t completely shut down.”

Once completed, the drill itself was broken down and transported to Gregg Marine in two 20-foot sea cans. For a project of this size, they filled additional sea can shipping containers with different tools to operate the drill and the control system. The MARL subsea drill went to work with the addition of a subsea hydraulic power unit and telemetry system. The drill was built to withstand 300 times normal atmospheric pressure, which means it can withstand forces that would crush almost anything except rare submarines. It was designed to be remotely operated from a ship overhead, which can be positioned as far as four kilometres away. After its success, the customer put in an order for a second subsea drill. The drills were used by Gregg Marine for some time and were eventually purchased by Dutch geo-data specialist company Fugro.

In 2015, Fugro set a seafloor drill depth record with the MARL subsea drill while completing a combined sampling and piezocone penetration testing borehole to 62 metres below seafloor. “The subsea drill was pretty unique. It tested our skills in design and manufacturing. We have a strong team that can really work with our customers to get them exactly what they need.” Teeuwsen said.

The drill was a great example of technical and engineering expertise and won the team an Alberta Professional Engineers and Geosciences Association (APEGA) Project Achievement Award. “Being recognized is really nice, especially when you look at some of the other things that have won this award in the past. It’s a testament, I think, to our company and all the people that work within it. It’s a big team approach working with the engineering staff, the shop staff as well, we all work as a team.”

Although they haven’t had other subsea drill requests since, Teeuwsen said they took away new learnings from the product delivery. “We have enhanced capability in the shop and we can transfer the design to other projects.” A majority of the subsea drill was made out of aluminum due to its corrosion resistant properties, and the team also began using structural adhesives for bonding parts of the drill rather than welding everything. “We learned a lot about design and using different products to go forward.”

MARL subsea drill.

Having experienced the 2008 financial crisis that slowed down the subsea drill manufacturing, when asked about how the pandemic has impacted operations, Teeuwsen explained that it has shifted some priorities.

“We had some production that was planned and is ongoing, we’re finishing up a couple things right now. We’ve been fortunate that some of our customers have been growing through North America and the United States. The economy through the pandemic hasn’t been great, but before that we had some orders that have been able to keep us busy.” Teeuwsen noted that it has slowed down a little more on the geotechnical drilling side. “There’s still work out there, but it has slowed down.”

The subsea drill has paved the way for geotechnical and geologic study, mineral exploration, and scientific research, and is a great testament to the expertise of Canadian manufacturers. Learn more about the drill here.