Derived from the Greek petra, meaning rock, and the Latin oleum, meaning oil, the word petroleum literally translates to rock oil. Logically so – the first discoveries of oil were natural seeps along fault lines and cracks in rocks. In some areas, these seeps occurred in creeks, ponds and marshes, with the oil collecting on the surface where it could be easily gathered.

Though oil is arguably the lifeblood of modern civilization, it is by no means a modern discovery. It has been around – and been used by man – since prehistory.

Ancient civilizations found the substance useful for medicinal purposes, waterproofing and bonding things together. As early as 4000 B.C., the Sumerians used asphalt as mortar for building, and to inlay mosaics in walls and floors. The Mesopotamians used bitumen to seal joints in wooden boats, line canals and build roads. The Egyptians used pitch to grease their chariots, and asphalt to embalm their loved ones. In North America, Native American Indians used crude oil as body paint and for ceremonial fires, and Alaska natives burned chunks of oil-saturated rock as fuel.

Petroleum has always been a multi-purpose product.

By 1500 B.C., petroleum was being used as a source of light: Firepans were filled with liquid oil of the right volatility to burn slowly, without excessive flame or the danger of explosion. Much later, the Romans used a variation on this theme as a weapon of war, launching flaming containers of oil at their enemies.

The Chinese discovered the first underground deposits of oil in salt wells, and in 600 B.C., Confucius wrote of wells 100 feet deep yielding water and natural gas. To transport the oil and natural gas from the wells to where they were needed, the Chinese built extensive bamboo pipelines.

Also around 600 B.C., oil was being extracted for everyday use from the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea – in present-day Azerbaijan – both as fuel oil for heating and lighting, and for medicinal purposes.

Azerbaijan is the oldest oil-producing country in the world; its name means “the land of fire.” This is due largely to the naturally occurring naphtha springs and gas seepages in the area, which often caught fire. This led the Zoroastrians, who believe fire is holy, to build numerous fire temples there. The fire temple at Baku is thought to be older than recorded history, and as late as 1880, it was still being tended by Zoroastrian priests from India. The fire temple in Surakhany, a suburb of Baku, still stands today.

The first oil wells were quite primitive: Pits several meters deep were dug by hand in areas of natural seepage. The oil simply bubbled to the surface and was extracted with a system of buckets and pulleys. This method was being used on the Absheron Peninsula as early as the 10th century, and remained that area’s predominant method of oil extraction until the early 1870s.

Crude oil ranges in color from almost clear to green, amber, brown or black. It can be as thick as molasses, or flow as freely as water. Depending on the presence or absence of sulfur and other impurities, it is often referred to as “sweet” or “sour.” It is refined into the products we know and love through the process of distillation, in which heat is used to separate the crude into its constituent parts.

The refining of seep or crude oil has a long history, beginning as early as the 13th century in Azerbaijan. At that time, low-density oil fractions were obtained for use in indoor and outdoor lighting – these burned with less soot and smell than seep oil. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whale and other animal oils were the primary fuels for lighting and lubrication. But as whale populations decreased, these oils became very expensive, and the demand eventually led to the near extinction of several species of whale.

The invention of the kerosene lamp in the 1850s changed everything almost overnight. The public readily switched to the new fuel – it was cheaper, easier to produce, burned cleaner without the smell of animal-based oils and did not spoil, as whale oil did. The discovery that a cleaner form of kerosene could be easily distilled from crude oil – rather than from coal and bitumen, the primary source of the fuel in North America at the time – kicked off a major search for oil. New sources had to be found to meet the growing demand.

The first modern oil well (not dug by hand) was drilled by a Russian engineer, F. N. Semyenov, in the Bibi-Eibat area of the Absheron Peninsula in 1848 (although there is evidence the Chinese used bamboo poles with bits attached to drill wells as early as 347 B.C.).

By 1854, oil wells 30 to 50 meters deep were also being drilled in the Carpathian mountains of Poland and Romania. In 1858, a major oil field was discovered in Ontario, Canada, while digging for a source of drinking water. And in 1859, near Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin Drake drilled the first well in the United States specifically in search of oil. Plagued by delays, technical difficulties and financial problems, the venture became known as Drake’s Folly . . . until the well struck crude at a depth of only 69.5 feet.

The Drake well is often mistakenly referred to as the world’s “first oil well.” While it wasn’t the first, it was probably the most important to the U.S. oil industry. Not only did it kick off the first American “black gold” rush, but it was also the first well to use drive pipe. By driving ten-foot lengths of cast-iron pipe down to bedrock, Drake was able to protect the upper hole of the well from collapse, so the drilling tools could be safely lowered to the bottom.

The increasing demand for kerosene as an illuminant, combined with the growing supply of crude oil made possible by new drilling techniques, quickly led to the need for refineries in the U.S. and abroad. By 1860, at least 30 kerosene plants were in production in the U.S., and by 1873, about 50 oil-refining plants were operating in Baku.

Demand for kerosene remained high until 1878, when the invention of the electric light bulb pushed the kerosene lamp by the wayside, extinguishing the volatile liquid’s commercial flame. The oil industry went into recession.

Despite this, there still was a need for other petroleum products – the machines of the Industrial Revolution still required fuel and lubricating oils. But it wasn’t until Karl Benz and Wilhelm Daimler introduced their gasoline-powered automobiles in Europe that the oil industry truly came of age.

Prior to this, gasoline was just a waste product of kerosene distillation. At best, it was used as a cheap solvent – at worst, it was deemed worthless and thrown away. By 1910, however, America was enthralled with the automobile, and by 1920, millions of cars were already on the road.

Today, gasoline is what drives modern society. It is the hydrocarbon elixir that gets us from point A to point B. Through the use of advanced distillation methods – heat, pressure and catalysts – modern refineries can convert more than half of every 42-gallon barrel of crude oil into gasoline, compared to just 11 gallons of the precious fuel in the early days.

Today’s oil industry is a far cry from what it was in the 1800s and 1900s. Modern oil rigs hardly resemble the wooden derricks of yesteryear, and drilling techniques have advanced from hand-dug pits, to spring poles and cable tools, to the modern-day rotary drilling rig.

Currently, there are approximately 1,275 active rotary drilling rigs in the U.S., both on land and offshore, producing more than 5.8 millions barrels of crude per day. Yet, according to the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. still imports nearly 60 percent of its oil.

With gas prices soaring above the $2.00-per-gallon mark in California this past summer, and rising nearly as high throughout the rest of the country, the need for America to curb its reliance on foreign oil has, once again, come to the fore. As a result, domestic oil production and exploration are on the rise.

Historically, every increase in oil exploration and production has brought with it an increase in demand for machining. Many machine shops in oil-producing states are already starting to reap the benefits of the current boom. This is clearly evident in Louisiana, where machine shops abound, and a high percentage of them are doing oil field work.

Louisiana is the third largest producer of petroleum in the U.S., and ranks third in refining. Much of the state’s oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico, which is one of the most fertile offshore fields in the world. We visited three Louisiana machine shops to see how, and what, they’re doing these days.

For Southern Technology & Services, Inc., in Houma, about 40 miles southwest of New Orleans, jack-up systems for offshore oil rigs are a mainstay. Jack-up systems, or jacking rigs, lift a drilling platform out of the water once it has been floated into position. They work much like the lift rack at an auto mechanic shop, except they lower legs to the ocean floor first, before lifting the platform.

Southern Tech has been doing oil field repair work since 1964. Their current facility occupies 30,000 square feet, about one third of which is machine shop, with the remainder being mechanical engineering and welding. At present, the company has only two CNC machines – a Haas VF-9 50-taper VMC with an HRT 450 rotary table, and a CNC turning centre from another manufacturer. The rest of their machine tools are manual, including several long-bed lathes and a large horizontal boring mill.

The CNCs were brought on board primarily for production machining of gears for the jacking systems. These gears account for about 50 percent of Southern Tech’s work load.

“The CNCs rose out of a need,” explains Bryan Bunn, one of the owner’s four sons working at Southern Tech. “We were having to send one of the products we manufacture to Seattle for machining. We purchased the Haas to bring that process in-house, so we could save ourselves some money, and better service our customers with quicker turnaround times.”

Why Seattle?

“One of the gears we make has a two-thirds diametrical pitch on the tooth,” Bunn says. “There are only two hobbing machines in North America that have the cutters to cut the tooth – one in Seattle and one in Canada. We did some research and found that we could profile the gear on a CNC, rather than having it hobbed. The money it saves logistically is just tremendous.”

Southern Tech worked closely with the local Haas Factory Outlet (HFO) in Lafayette to select the right machine and prove out the process. “We pretty much did a turnkey for them, with all the testing, to make sure we could do what they wanted to do,” says Pat Kane, president of the HFO. “We ran several prototype gears in our showroom, and basically had the programs ready to go for them.”

Southern Tech manufactures five different gears for jacking systems, ranging from a 76-tooth gear to an 8-tooth gear. The 8-tooth is the one that led to the purchase of the Haas.

The raw material for the gears (4340 alloy steel) comes in two forms – as solid bar stock in an annealed state, and as rough-cut forgings, where each dimension is up to 1 inch oversize. First, the ODs are roughed out to 100 thou’ oversize for heat treat, and the gear diameter is turned to size. Then, the blank is fixtured between the HRT 450 rotary table and a tailstock on the Haas VF-9/50. The gear is then machined in a single operation.

“We go down with an endmill first,” explains Dustin Theriot, CNC administrator, “and start roughing it out. Then, we go in with a ball mill and profile the tooth shape specified for that gear. Then we use a finish mill to cut the gear to size.” At that point, the gear goes out for heat treating, after which the ODs are turned to size on the lathe, and a keyway is cut on the mill.

By optimizing tooling and feedrates, Theriot says they have cut the cycle times on the 8-tooth gear from 18 hours to 8. “So we’ve tripled our production,” he says, “and we’re looking to increase it more. We’d like to get it in the 5- to 6-hour range. Time is money in this business.”

Another portion of Southern Tech’s business is repair work. Many of the larger oil field components, such as blowout preventers (BOPs), flanges, studded tees, crosses and bearing liners, don’t get replaced when they wear, they get repaired. These components are often large forgings, and the only areas that wear are the sealing surfaces or contact points. Rather than replace the entire component, it is easier and less expensive to weld new material to the worn surfaces and machine them to the proper tolerance.

“We didn’t think we could use CNCs for repair work,” says Bunn. “We thought they were only good for production. It wasn’t until we brought them in for production work that we realized, wait a minute, we can do repair work on them. Now, a lot of what we do on the Haas isn’t manufacturing – there’s something in there being repaired.

“Eventually I’d like to see about a fifty-fifty mix, where we could continue doing the work we’ve done in the past that’s been profitable, and do large production runs on items that we haven’t done in the past, but the CNCs have enabled us to do.”

This will also help insulate Southern Tech from the inevitable bust that follows every oil boom. “There are some things that happen in the oil field that, even when things are bad, they still need parts,” Bunn explains, “especially on the production end. That’s where you get the large production runs – on tees and crosses and flanges and things like that. They have to maintain their production facilities.

“I wouldn’t say it’s constant,” Bunn cautions, “it will drop off, but not like the drilling end. When drilling dries up, it dries up – it’s dead. Production’s not like that.”

According to Southern Tech’s Ronnie Broussard, they’ve already had good success with one such product: “We were losing a serious amount of money on the first parts doing them on a manual machine,” he says. ”We’re now making money on the same part with the Haas.”

“It’s a production block,” adds Bunn, “a twelve inch by twelve inch by twelve inch steel block that’s drilled into a tee, with ring grooves and a bolt pattern around each hole. We’ve taken some of the processes from an hour and a half down to several minutes, which, at the end of the month, is a direct reflection on the bottom line. ”

Just up the road, in Lafayette, is TomaHawk Enterprises, Inc., a company that specializes in mud motors, transmission couplings, bent housings and various subs for directional drilling (subs, or substitutes, are adapters for connecting parts of the drill string that otherwise could not be screwed together because of differences in thread size or design).

In rotary drilling, cutting is accomplished by a rotating drill pipe with a bit attached to the bottom of it. A hydraulic- or electric-powered turntable rotates the pipe, and the bit cuts or breaks up the material as it penetrates the rock formations. As the hole gets deeper, lengths of drill pipe are added to the string. To remove the cuttings from the hole, drilling fluid, or mud (a mixture of water, clay, weighting material and chemicals), is pumped under pressure through the rotating drill pipe and through holes in the bit (much like through-spindle coolant in a machine tool). The mud swirls in the bottom of the hole, picks up the cuttings and carries them to the surface.

The mud also cools the bit, lubricates the drill string and creates hydrostatic pressure in the hole to prevent it from caving in.

In directional – or horizontal – drilling, the straight drill string is stopped, and a bent housing, which provides up to 3 degrees of bend, kicks the bit off at an angle to begin the arc for the horizontal hole. Since the drill pipe can no longer rotate to drill, the bit must be driven by other means. This is where the mud motor comes in.

A mud motor basically consists of a power section (a progressing-cavity pump that acts as a motor when drilling mud is forced through it under pressure), a bent housing, a series of transmission couplings, a bearing section and, finally, a rotating bit box and mandrel. The pressure of the drilling mud flowing through the pump turns the rotor of the power section, which drives the transmission couplings. The transmission couplings provide flexible torque transmission through the bearing assembly to the bit box and mandrel, thus providing rotation to the bit.

TomaHawk makes mud motors. They manufacture all of the components except for the power section. The company was founded by Tom Falgout Sr. in 1991. “I got involved with mud motors at the last place I worked,” Falgout explains, “and I got enthralled with them. I’m an engineer – I have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering – and an inventive-type person. I came up with a couple ideas for

mud motors that I patented. I started off trying to design motors for other people. Then, after about a year,” he continues, “my son joined me, and we decided that the only way to do this right was to be in total control of our own destiny – to manufacture our own products.”

Since most of the major oil companies have their own engineering staffs, they’re not that interested in TomaHawk’s products. TomaHawk caters more to the little guy. “There are a lot more rigs running out there now,” says Falgout, “and a lot more new companies, smaller companies. Our niche is providing innovative engineering services to these smaller companies. We make products available to them that they couldn’t get otherwise.”

All of the components TomaHawk manufactures are machined out of alloy steel materials to withstand the rigors of drilling. Outer housings – drive housings and bearing housings – are machined out of 4140 and 4145 alloy steel. Components for the transmission couplings, called drivers and drivens, are machined out of heat-treated 4140 (32-38 Rc), and the ball seats and catches that hold the drive couplings together are machined out of 9310, then carburized.

TomaHawk currently manufactures nine different sizes of mud motor. “We have sizes ranging from one and eleven sixteenths to nine and five eighths inches,” explains Chad Daigle, mechanical engineer at TomaHawk. “What size motor they’re going to use depends on the size of the hole they want to drill.”

Although TomaHawk started out as a manual shop, they began switching to CNC in 1994, when they moved from a smaller shop to their current location. Their present lineup of machine tools includes a 50-taper Haas VF-5 VMC and a Haas SL-30 Big Bore lathe, as well as several other CNC and manual machines.

One of the challenges in oil field work is cutting accurate API threads. In the early days of oil exploration, each oil company had its own specific thread for drill pipe and fittings – there was no standardization. Eventually, there were so many different threads that the American Petroleum Institute (API) stepped in to regulate them. Today, API threads are pretty much the industry standard.

What makes these threads challenging is that they have a very steep taper (2–3 inches per foot) and must hold a tight tolerance on both pitch and taper. Daigle explains: “Let’s look at a two and seven eighths inch API regular. This is a real standard pin (male) connection. The pitch tolerance is one and a half thou’ per inch, and the taper tolerance is two thou’ per inch.” The ability of a machine to cut these threads accurately is essential, Daigle says, “or the machine would be worthless to us.”

When TomaHawk first got their Haas SL-30 BB lathe, they had some problems cutting the API threads on the machine. “The first time we sent parts to QC, the taper and lead were off,” notes Daigle. They called their local Haas distributor, the HFO in Lafayette, and a service technician responded immediately.

“The service was great,” say Daigle. “They came out as fast as we could call.”

Working closely with Haas headquarters in Oxnard, California, the HFO service technician diagnosed the problem as a software bug. New software was issued, and the problem was solved. Now, says Daigle, “It [the Haas] cuts a pin connection with no problem, and the service is the best we’ve seen between the three machine brands we have.”

Falgout agrees. “We’re getting good production out of the Haas, and from a maintenance standpoint, Haas has been much better than the other companies. That’s a real plus. Good service is a must, just like in my business.”

TomaHawk cuts the driving ends of their transmission couplings on the Haas VF-5/50, using an HRT 310 4th-axis rotary table to do the machining in a single setup. “The 50-taper allows us to run some of the bigger parts faster,” says Daigle. Bent housings and drive housings are also cut on the VF-5, as well as some of the ball seats and catches. “I could see us buying a Mini Mill to cut those ball seats and catches,” Daigle notes. “We have a company in Dallas that’s making them for us by the thousand. We could stuff a Mini Mill in a corner and run those things non-stop; we use that many of them.”

More machines are a definite possibility for TomaHawk, says Falgout. But a lot depends on what happens in the oil industry. “The oil field is a fickle industry,” he says. “If it stays healthy for awhile, we’ll probably find a bigger facility and add more equipment.”

Advance Manufacturing Technology, Inc. (AMT), is located in Lake Charles, near the western border of Louisiana. At present, about 98% of their work is oil field related. “We used to do more work for the refineries,” says owner Brian Leeth, “but we really don’t call on them any more. We do more manufacturing now – blowout preventers, pack-off equipment, a lot of pressure equipment – and we build the accessory tools for different parts of the oil field, such as sub-sea equipment for deep water drilling.”

AMT started in 1987 as a fully manual shop, but began buying CNC machines around a year later. Since much of oil field machining is tubing work, their first CNCs were lathes with large through-holes – they bought a 5.25″-hole Leblond at auction, and later a 9″-hole Leblond.

It wasn’t until 1997 that more CNCs entered the picture. “We were doing our BOPs,” Leeth explains, “and subcontracting out some of that work. One of the companies we were working with gave us a quote to run the rams (an internal part of the BOP) for us, and we didn’t like the looks of the quote. I said: Well, shoot, by the time I pay them to run all the parts, I’ve got half the cost of a machine. Quick, buy a machine!”

Leeth contacted Machine Tools, Inc. in Lafayette (now the Haas Factory Outlet), which had a Haas VF-4 vertical machining centre in stock. “I’d been buying equipment from Pat (Kane, president of the HFO) for years,” says Leeth, “so he was my first call. I had looked at Haas machines before – they’ve got good pricing, and lots of torque – so we bought that one.”

Once the machine was on the floor, AMT put it to good use. “We started doing the rams for the blowout preventers,” says Leeth, “and the accessory parts, and the slotting and the . . . It got to the point where we looked back and asked, How did we ever do without it? We pushed that machine way more than its capacity,” he adds. “Parts you shouldn’t do on the machine? We did those parts on the machine. We pushed it way over its limits, and we’re happy with it. It soon got to the point where we didn’t have enough machine time to run everything. We needed another machine.”

To satisfy their need, AMT purchased a Haas VF-7 VMC and an SL-20 turning centre. As often happens when adding CNC equipment, the increase in capacity and capability led to more work.

“It allowed us to bring in a different kind of work,” says Leeth, “and more of the same type of work. It gave us capabilities that we didn’t have before. We started out as a job shop, cutting connections and doing repair work on farm implements and heavy equipment. We’ve moved away from that and into manufacturing. These machines have helped us accelerate that growth.”

The latest addition to AMT’s machine tool arsenal is a new Haas HS-3R horizontal machining centre with built-in 4th-axis platter. The large size of the machine (150″ x 50″ x 50″), combined with the 4th axis, allows them to machine their larger BOPs in fewer operations.

“Our growth areas now are in pressure equipment – the quality of our pressure equipment plus the delivery time of our stuff. And that’s why we’ve bought the HS-3R – it’s larger, has better capacity and a higher production rate, and it means we don’t have to send anything out to anybody else. The work doesn’t leave here, and that’s where we’re trying to get.”

With the petroleum industry as unpredictable as it is, being self-sufficient is probably a good place to be for a machine shop, especially if it relies on oil field work. As AMT’s Brian Leeth says, “We can’t control everybody else; we can only control what’s here.” 

We’re getting good production out of the Haas, and from a maintenance standpoint, Haas has been much better than the other companies. That’s a real plus. Good service is a must, just like in my business.

Tom Falgout