21 Questions: An exclusive interview with Sarp Ayken

October 4, 2021

Sarp Ayken portrait
Sarp Ayken
Drilling Manager at Ortadoğu Sondaj

Sarp Ayken was born in 1977 in Izmir, Turkey. He entered the Geological Engineering Department of Middle East Technical University in 1995. After graduation, he started working as a Site Engineer at Ortadoğu Sondaj (Ortadoğu) in March 2001. He has been with the company ever since.

In these 20 years, Sarp has been involved in many domestic and international projects as an engineer and later as a manager. He has extensive experience working on projects in his home country of Turkey, in Italy, Iran and Pakistan.

Sarp is a member of the Chamber of Geological Engineers of Turkey and the Turkish Association of Economic Geologists. He also is a frequent speaker on Diamond Drilling subjects such as: Slim Hole Drilling Technology, Fluid Mechanics and Drill Mud, and Maximizing Core Recovery at international events. He holds multiple prestigious certifications.

Nowadays, with Sarp in the leadership of Ortadoğu Sondaj, the company has become the largest contractor in Turkey and one of the largest in the region with their own drilling rig and equipment manufacturing facility.

Grigor Topev: How did you start out in drilling?

Sarp Ayken: My professor in the university was a hydrogeologist and was working as an advisor for a trona mineral exploration project for US Borax around the city of Ankara, Turkey and Ortadoğu Sondaj was the drilling contractor. He recommended me to Ortadoğu for a Site Engineer. This project was a stepping stone as it marked the beginning of my drilling career.

GT: How has the industry changed?

SA: I think the biggest change happened in the technology of the drilling rigs and equipment.

For example, the capacity of drill rigs increased allowing to drill deeper with the same bit size. The performance of drill bits and other downhole tools has improved a lot allowing faster penetration rates.

I remember that when I was starting even the impregnated bit design was very new in Turkey and no driller was willing to use it. Also, back then, there were almost no hydraulic drill rigs available in Turkey. All of our rigs were the ‘mechanical’ type and it was an adventure and a large achievement in the country when we drilled the first continuous coring borehole deeper than 1000 m (≈ 3281 ft) – the final depth when it was completed, just as I was beginning my career, reached 1003 m (≈ 3291 ft).

Another big change happened in drilling fluid additives. With the improvement and introduction of new products, the characteristics of drilling fluids improved and changed a lot, mainly from the typical bentonite muds to the more complex bentonite/polymer ones. This way the knowledge of engineers and drillers increased.

I must also mention here the vast improvement in the attitude towards safety and environment in the drilling sector in these 20 years.

So, with all these changes drillers, and engineers improved themselves and as a result, much deeper boreholes are now being drilled under higher safety and environmental standards.

GT: Tell us the most important drilling-related practical lesson that you have learned during your career.

SA: I cannot share a particular lesson, but my multitasking ability has definitely increased a lot. I must also note that being a team leader is something that I’m still improving.

GT: You work as a Drilling Manager at Ortadoğu Sondaj. What is the most interesting drilling project of the company that you have ever participated in?

SA: The most interesting project of Ortadoğu Sondaj was the deepest slim hole, which was drilled with the purpose of exploring a geothermal reservoir and was completed at 2146 m (≈ 7041 ft) in N-size in 2013. We drilled in P-size to 973 m (≈ 3192 ft) and used H-size to reach the depth of 1602 m (≈ 5256 ft). We also did some measurements and hole tests after completion. It was a great experience for all of us.

GT: Please tell us about your responsibilities in Ortadoğu Sondaj.

SA: I’m daily monitoring and interfering (if necessary) with the performance of all the drill rigs through the drillers’ shift reports, which are uploaded to an online platform our company is using, and through the daily reports of our site management. I am also responsible for the arrangement of the drilling crew. Additionally, I am periodically visiting our projects.

GT: Tell us about the drilling industry in Turkey.

SA: Especially this year, the drilling industry in Turkey is very hectic. Currently, we are the biggest (exploration) drilling company in Turkey with 35 drill rigs on the ground and we have an annual drilling capacity of about 350 000 m (1 148 300 ft). Although there are a lot of drilling companies of various sizes in Turkey, I can say that we are amongst the two or three companies that can be considered as the main players. I think the drilling capacities of the other big players are close to ours, whereas the rest have average to small capacities.

GT: How was this year compared to 2020? Has the amount of work increased? Have you made any new investments or are you planning to in the near future?

SA: Since 2019, the global demand for exploration drilling has been increasing enormously and the same goes for Turkey as well. Our company’s policy during this period is to preserve the number of drill rigs and our core drilling crew, increase the quality of all the work elements we are responsible for and train new drillers. In the near future, we don’t have any plans for new investments or expanding the number of drill rigs or drillers.

Over the last 10 years, our company has been operating globally. We have two branch offices. One being in Pisa, Italy and the other one is in Lahore, Pakistan. We have worked and have completed projects in other parts of Italy and in Iran.

Our Pakistan project was delayed by about a year due to the pandemic, but we are planning to resume within August 2021. We are still offering to international tenders, and we are about to start a contract on a new project in Asia.

Ortadoğu drillsite Pakistan
Ortadoğu’s drillsite from bird’s eye view, Chiniot, Pakistan

GT: Has the price per drilled meter gone up recently? Do you expect it to increase more over the next 12 months?

SA: Even if you consider the currency of the price per drilled meter in USD or EUR, unfortunately, the rates in Turkey have gone down. We hope and expect an increase in the next year because there is a huge global increase in the demand for raw materials, such as metal, silver, plastic, etc. and this has a large impact on our rates. Rates are also affected by local price hikes of fuel, labor, etc.

GT: Are there any foreign drilling companies in Turkey?

SA: In the previous years, there were some foreign drilling companies, which tried to work in Turkey, but none of them stayed. I think the biggest reason was that the formations in Turkey are not easy to drill, which makes most projects hard to complete. If a company intends to work abroad, profitability expectations are much higher than for domestic projects. In Turkey, however, that is not the case, as the prices are low and the risk is high! Also, this fact makes it very difficult for foreign companies to compete with the local contractors.

GT: What are the main differences between Turkish and international contractors? What do you think they could learn from your region?

SA: Turkish contractors take jobs regardless of the volume of work. However, international contractors usually want to work long-term. Also, one of the main differences I’ve seen in international contractors, who have worked in Turkey, is that sometimes they stick to the contractual items too much. This can make things complicated in the projects.

GT: When talking about surveying, core orientation, cementing, wedging, directional drilling, what are the preferred products that Turkish drilling contractors tend to use?

SA: For practical reasons, we mostly prefer Devico products. For surveying, we use the magnetic or nonmagnetic tools, such as DeviSoft (a Multishot instrument) and DeviFlex. For core orientation purposes, we prefer DeviCore. In some projects, depending on the availability of Devico products, we can use Reflex ACT for core orientation applications.

For cementing, we usually use ordinary Portland 42.5 cement (CEM- I or CEM- II type) that can be found on the market. For some special cases, like deep drilling a slim hole for geothermal (where there is intensive heat at the borehole) or salt drilling projects, we do Class-G cement with some lubricants to extend the setting time of cement. Wedging tools are our own manufacturing.

GT: What drilling equipment do you supply locally and what do you use external suppliers for?

SA: Our company also has a manufacturing division, GEO Drilling Machinery Co. We are the main customer and almost all of the drilling equipment is being supplied to Ortadoğu from this company. We use external suppliers only for surveying tools and drilling mud additives. Most of our mud additive suppliers are also local.

GT: What are the main challenges that the industry in Turkey faces? Why?

SA: The biggest challenge our company is facing is the supply of raw materials both domestically and internationally. Especially due to the pandemic in the last two years, this has started to become a very big problem in the industry. For example, the price of steel has increased by about 250% in the last year while silver by about 40%.

Another challenge in the industry in Turkey is that some domestic manufacturers produce drilling equipment that doesn’t conform to international specifications like DCDMA. Sometimes we like to purchase some equipment from local suppliers as well, but if it is not produced by the standards, you cannot use it with your own equipment. For example, you don’t want to mix a drill rod with your standard drill rods if the threads don’t match.

GT: Turkey is known for its many diamond drill rigs producers, I would say more than most of the countries. Why do you think this is?

SA: When you consider the dedicated diamond drill rig producers, they are not many. Actually, I would say that there are only two or three professional ones in Turkey. That is because producing and selling a drill rig also means providing servicing for at least one year after the rig is sold. In this manner, among all the big companies in the world that are both drilling contractors and at the same time manufacturers, our company is the 2nd or 3rd, as it produces all its drill rigs and equipment (including drill bits!). It also has a 350 000 m (1 148 300 ft) annual drilling capacity with 35 rigs.

I would highlight two facts as the reasons for choosing to become a drill rig producer:

  1. prices of imported drill rigs being exorbitant and,
  2. it takes extremely long for spare parts from abroad to arrive in Turkey (sometimes it takes seven-eight weeks). In case of a breakdown, no contractor can allow its drill rig to wait on stand down for such a long time.

GT: How often do you have to use casing and reduce the size to reach the final depth?

SA: As I’ve mentioned, drilling in Turkey is difficult because of the country’s geology. Although most of the time we aim to drill the holes all in one size, usually this is not the case. Depending on the target depth and formation, in some projects we have to use three or four different sizes, even for a 400 m (1312 ft) to 500 m (1640 ft) hole, to be able to reach the final depth.

GT: If you get a chance to work on a drilling project anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

SA: I’ve worked in many project areas that have beautiful nature. For example, there are very beautiful areas in Western Turkey and thankfully, we still have a few projects there. Also, we had a project for Enel Green Power in the beautiful Tuscany region, Italy. I would really like working in those kinds of environments.

GT: With your experience, what would be the advice you can give to the professionals from other countries/regions?

SA: A drilling project can be condensed into three steps: the first one is to sign the contract, the second is to start and complete the project with all the deliverables and the third is to receive your money. In all three, the client and contractor have different roles and responsibilities.

In some projects, there may be very challenging technical problems caused by geological or environmental circumstances and there may be a need for mutual understanding between the contractor and the client. Contracts are of course an extremely important and necessary part of a project. But when we face the problems of the project, I believe that the key to the solution is to always maintain good communication between the representatives of each group on the site. So, my advice to the professionals would be: don’t stick to the words inside a contract to solve problems on-site.

On the other hand, for the companies that would like to expand and work abroad, they have to know the laws and regulations of the country extremely well before contracting. Otherwise, since some countries may have very different regulations, companies might trip on one of the three steps I mentioned.

GT: There is a growing labor shortage for skilled drillers, geologists and even drilling rigs and equipment in some countries. Are you experiencing something similar in Turkey?

SA: For many years, our company’s policy has been to train our crew from the very basics. All our drillers have begun as helpers in our company before becoming drillers. We also usually prefer new graduate geologists as site managers, and they undergo our periodical training programs. So, we are not experiencing a labor shortage in our company. Thanks to GEO Drilling Machinery, we don’t have a problem with rig or equipment shortages either.

GT: Is it difficult to find experienced drillers in Turkey?

SA: ‘Experienced driller’ is a tricky term. Currently, our company employs around 100 drillers, and I can say that about half of them are experienced. However, in the 25 years of our company’s history, there have been so many drillers, who have retired or quit our company, some of them being very experienced. A few have established their own drilling companies, some went abroad and many of them are still working in other companies in Turkey.

So, regarding only the ones I know, I don’t think that it is difficult to find experienced drillers in Turkey. But if the question is: ‘Is it difficult to find a good driller who fits the operation and the policies of your company?’, then my answer would be no, it is not difficult. It is very difficult.

GT: What do you think about automation and the implementation of AI technologies in diamond drilling? How are they accepted in your country? From your point of view, do they make drillers’ work easier?

SA: I think that AI technologies in diamond drilling will be the dominating and defining factor both for manufacturers and clients that want to contract in drilling projects. Our company is also conducting its own research and development on this matter.

GT: What is in the future for diamond drilling in Turkey?

SA: Three years ago, the Government of Turkey announced a policy to explore and mine all underground resources in the country. They also announced a massive long-term exploration program. So, we expect that diamond drilling in Turkey will see a large boost in the future. Actually, two years ago it sped up and we expect this acceleration to continue at least for a few more years.

For more information visit: www.ortadogusondaj.com

Read Issue 17 here: 

Issue 17 / 2021