Opportunities for constructing underground utilities across Europe will increase as the economy starts to stabilise. An increasing demand for gas in particular and other utilities in the East of the region should prove interesting for contractors. Becca Wilkins reports.
As Europe begins to ease its way out of recession contractors are realising that opportunities for utility installation should emerge once again. The most likely area to expand its utility provision will be in the East of the region. Meanwhile, upgrading and maintaining utilities will also provide opportunities in Western Europe.
Constructing underground utilities takes place in ever-challenging environments. However, by using the latest equipment and techniques installing electricity, gas, water, sewage and telecommunication systems in the most difficult of locations is much easier to achieve.
One such project is taking place in the Italian mountains, close to Bolzano, where a Caterpillar 319DLN excavator with variable adjustable (VA) boom is working at a water pipe laying project.
The machine is equipped with a quick coupler, which allows the machine to excavate the trench, pick up and position the pipe and load the bucket with cement so that the operators can access it from the trench.
A spokesman for Caterpillar said, "VA boom is vital so the machine can get close to the trench and allow traffic to pass, avoids interference with electrical cables and also to pick up heavy blocks in confined spaces."
Elsewhere, German contractor, Paasch has installed a pipeline in Helgoland, an island off the coast of Germany, using Tracto-Technik's Grundodrill horizontal direction drill (HDD)-bore technology, as part of a € 20 million project to connect the island (and the neighbouring island of Düne) to the European power supply network.
E.ON Hanse, one of Northern Germany's biggest regional energy providers, was due to start operation of the new power supply for the 1300 islanders in September.
Speaking for E.ON Hanse, Klaus Lewandowski said, "We are talking about the longest sea cable in Germany to provide power to an island. The sea cable weighing 800 tonnes was produced by the North German Sea cable plant in one piece. This saved the need for any socket connections under water, which could always cause disturbances."
A 300 m HDD-bore from the beach of the dune in the North Sea allowed for the installation of the cable into the newly installed pipe.
Although equipment manufacturers are not overly optimistic about the current and short-term state of the utility market they are more positive about the future and identify specific areas for growth.
Rob Verwilligen, area sales manager for Astec Underground told CE, "The current market for utility products in Europe is grim, with few exceptions and will take time to recover at least until the second half of 2010, maybe longer."
The downturn in the construction market has meant that the company is more selective in terms of new product introductions.
"At this point it seems it is better to talk about potential growth rather than current growth opportunities. In those areas where there are potential new or at least growth markets it would be fair to say that the financial climate is such that the investment in new products is virtually non-existent," Mr Verwilligen explained.
He said in future there are a variety of markets which could open up, such as larger diameter gas lines and fibre optics, but he said this would depend on the state of the economy.
Meanwhile, Scott Smith, international sales manager for Ditch Witch said, "The horizontal directional drill (HDD) market in Western Europe has weathered the current economic downturn better than most global markets. Gas, water, power and telecommunications projects are still underway."
He added gas in particular remains a driving force in the marketplace and these types of projects across the region have increased the need for home and commercial use of natural gas.
However, he added markets that have been driven by energy revenues and the central and Eastern European territories have experienced a downturn.
"The potential future growth for utility construction equipment is in long term infrastructure development in central and Eastern Europe as well as in Russia, and the Middle East," he said.
Mr Smith told CE in future in the more developed markets there is also increasing interest in the so-called "smart grid" technology for power utilities and in improving antiquated water and sewer systems. He added in the developing markets, the opportunity for all - water, power, gas and telecommunication is strong.
Increasingly demanding jobsites and an emphasis on reducing overall costs has led manufacturers of trenching and trenchless equipment to enhance their products.
For example, Ditch Witch has launched the JT100AT horizontal directional drill (HDD), which is the All Terrain counterpart to the recently released JT100 Mach 1 - the largest Ditch Witch directional drill. The new model joins the JT3020AT and JT4020AT models.
The JT100 AT can drill and backream large-diameter pipe through rock and rocky soil. It also features a heavy-duty double rack-and-pinion thrust drive that is field-proven to push through the longest, toughest bores, the company said.
According to Mr Smith productivity remains a key product driver although, he added operator comfort, ease of operation and environmental impact is playing an increasingly important role in the buying process.
Mr Verwilligen agrees the issue of productivity is one of the main drivers in the sector, "It has our constant attention as shown on our newly released DD-4045 (HDD) which amongst other things features controls which up to a certain extent can be adjusted to meet the operators' preferences in order to increase production."
The Astec EarthPro DD-4045 features a two-speed carriage which decreases cycle times when adding and removing pipe from the spindle at a maximum of 42.7 m/minute, the company said.
The DD-4045 features a Cummins QSB4.5 turbocharged Stage IIIA diesel and charge air-cooled 156 hp (116 kW) engine. A Quiet-Pak sound reduction system is standard on the new HDD which also comes with safety mounts and an electrical grounding switch at the drillers console for additional safety.
Other features include a multi-functional colour LCD display that provides a clear view of the drill's performance and monitors the full range of systems and functions. A dual joystick control system helps to reduce operator fatigue while increasing efficiency and cruise control is standard.
Forward-mounted track drive motors provider greater traction in a wide range of soil conditions and provides reliable service, the company added.
Mr Verwilligen said, "Whilst operator safety and comfort are very important the largest drivers in our experience are the compactness of the unit together with production and flexibility in its application."
Manufacturers of equipment used for utility construction, although realistic about the rate at which market stability will return, are generally positive about the coming year - believing the worst of the downturn has now passed.
Mr Smith said, "We are very optimistic about future opportunities in utility construction in Europe. We have seen growth in our European HDD market share in the first half of 2009 - a trend we plan to maintain through excellence in customer support and a superior product offering."
Meanwhile, Mr Verwilligen said, "Since product development is ongoing we do not expect any changes there even though we are considering venturing into totally new markets where either modified versions of our current product line or potentially even total newly designed products would be required."