21 Questions: Exclusive interview with Darren Thomson

July 8, 2022
Darren Tomson
Darren Thomson – Founder at Thomson Tech

Darren Thomson was born in Australia and after a stint at a butcher’s shop during his teenage years, he found himself in Boart Longyear in 1988. He began his career as an offsider and rose through the ranks becoming driller, supervisor and eventually manager. Necessity forced Darren to learn more about drilling fluid additives and as his knowledge grew, so did his passion. Striving to learn the best information and share it with his colleagues, he began constructing drilling visual aids. This eventually led to the creation of Thomson Tech in 2019. Thomson Tech’s original mission was to be the most successful, creative, and ground-breaking underground drilling consultancy and drill bit designer in Australia. To approach each client with fresh eyes and to develop customized, unique strategies for the best outcome. Darren found that this was far from a good statement and is currently rethinking it based on new findings and requirements. According to him, it was only in the last few months that we’d witnessed the biggest impact to the industry and Thomson Tech. The COVID-19 travel restrictions and risk reduction management strategies and behaviors have made a visible impact to the way drilling crews are learning (or not learning) the new required skills within the industry. Darren and Thomson Tech acknowledge this, and they are working hard to help repair the void.
Nowadays, Darren is travelling across Australia, consulting on multiple hard rock drilling projects.

Grigor Topev: Tell us about your early years and how exactly did you find your way into the drilling industry? 

Darren Thomson: I started working at an early age, as I had enough of school. I was walking down the street on the way home from school, when a lady ran out of the butcher shop and asked if I wanted a job. This wonderful lady wasn’t a person that you’d say no to, and so, I started the following Monday. I loved this job and what I didn’t know was that my first lesson, the art of sharpening a knife, would be such an important part of my life journey. 

Around four or five years later, I had finished my apprenticeship and I was working seven days a week and doing everything from the buying and collection of livestock to the sales over the counter and everything in-between. All for the bargain price of AUD 97 (around USD 70 today) per week. 

From memory, it was a weekend back in 1988 that a few friends had convinced me to head over to Adelaide for a couple of open-air concerts. The two bands that were playing were Pink Floyd and AC/DC. Now, I’m not saying that the laser light show at Pink Floyd wasn’t awesome, but without all the smoke it may have been less impressive, that’s for sure. 

It all seemed to roll into one, as AC/DC was on the following night. Sometime during the insanely brilliant, High Voltage Rocking Roll & Hell’s Bells, we watched the outer fence of Globe Derby Park (Horse Racing Circuit) begin to sway back and forth like massive waves on the ocean. 

A few moments later what seemed like a dam wall busting and a mountain of water flowing toward us, thousands of people and their eskys (cooler box) flowed into the park. The band stopped playing and we all thought it was over. 

Around ten minutes passed and then, the front man welcomed everyone by screaming out ‘f—k yeah’, and they played on, and to this day I personally believe that they have never gone to a level like that again. As the newly introduced beers flowed from the new arrivals that had just swamped in, the guy that was standing next to me handed me a beer. It turned out he was a driller on a break. He was working for a company called Longyear. I did know the name and a little bit about them as two of my mates were working with them. 

I honestly cannot remember too much of the conversation or the whole weekend. Seven days later Steve Perks, Longyear’s Operation Manager drove over to my small country town and told me to be back in Adelaide ASAP. 

In what seemed like only days, I heard, ‘Welcome to Longyear, you’re off to Tennant Creek for two months on a G&K 850 rig’. The first two weeks were the hardest thing I have ever done, and probably, there wasn’t a day where I didn’t think, ‘screw this’. Two weeks in I received my first payslip, and couldn’t believe my luck, I had made over AUD 100 (for just one day, although this was a Sunday. The last four weeks I couldn’t get enough, and the love affair begun. 

GT: You worked at Boart Longyear in the early 90s. What was it like to operate for a leading diamond drilling contractor at the time? What’s the most interesting story from your years spent on drill sites? 

DT: Starting as an offsider on the multipurpose rig, for the first two swings we drilled reverse circulation (RC). I can recall the first trip in with HWT casing like it was yesterday. I think I was on the bloody chain tongs for six hours straight, that thread was ridiculous. 

The years before and a few after Longyear became Boart Longyear seem to stick in my memory as the golden years. I’m not sure if it’s the lifelong friendships or the amazing amount of drilling knowledge that was working with you. I say working with you, as the way the drilling operations are carried out today is now very different. There’s a hell of a lot more bookwork now and only so many hours in a day. I also think that the longer swings made the whole drill crew have ownership of contract completion, while teaching you the complete range of skills through necessity. 

GT: What have been the biggest innovations and techniques introduced into drilling during your career and how have they changed the way drilling crews operate? 

DT: I’m pretty sure I couldn’t put a name to just one of the biggest innovations to the drill rig or the techniques. It is an industry that is constantly changing. I started my career on a G&K 850 and I believed the rig was as good as it could be. To be fair, I realize that back then, I had absolutely no clue whether it was a good one, or an old dinosaur that was hiding out in the bush to die. I can’t quite remember when and where, although it wasn’t all that long after I had started. I was shipped off out to some God-forsaken place out in the middle of nowhere to what I was told was a little rig. A little rig they said, well, when I got there after having sat in the middle of the Toyota with the handbrake giving my butt pins and needles for six hours. I found myself staring at what looked like an old Southern Cross Windmill that was about to fall over. Anyways, it turned out to be a Longyear 38 diamond drill rig. I can remember thinking, I would have gladly hacked off any body part, just to sit back in that Toyota and go home, and yes, missing a part of my body and sitting back on the handbrake for six hours. The rig had manual foot clamps that you had to stand on and then take the weight with the winch. We didn’t have any major issues with them as far as dropping rods or anything of that nature. Although, you could see that anything could go belly up at any second. So hydraulic foot clamps and all they become is one I would put at the top of my list. The next is the head chuck, going from the hand tighten chuck as if you are using the biggest lathe ever to the fully auto chuck of today. And the rod spinner is in the top three for me. I feel they made the biggest impact to the extremely high manual handling part of the job. I would say as an overall comment that the engineering has removed the manual handing and thus the risk. This is to me the greatest change. 

GT: Describe the most interesting and challenging drilling program that you have ever been part of. 

DT: The most interesting and challenging drilling program I was ever involved with was at the Cosmos mine site in Western Australia. The Laterite-hosted nickel is some of the trickiest drilling going around. Looking back on it now through all my experience, at this site I was never truly happy with the results. At the time I was early into my new role as a drilling fluid specialist and was following the script. It wasn’t enough, so I started building visual aids. Using a clear Perspex tube and a fishpond pump I was able to show the difference between a viscous fluid and a suspending fluid. I still do believe this helped me make an impact to the drilling at this site. What I didn’t know, is that it would set me on a whole new path of my own. I started building new training models every month until this day. 

GT: I see how you’ve turned from a driller to a drill mud professional. Please tell us more about this shift. 

DT: The move from a drilling to a drilling fluid specialist was driven by necessity and curiosity. Over the years I had watched the slow introduction of drilling fluid additives into the mineral exploration drilling while working at Boart Longyear. It started with very small amounts of Baroid products and that was it. Looking back at this now, we had some very astute supervisors at the time, and they were expensive… 

It wasn’t long after that Australian Mud Company came on to the scene and was just starting up. For the first time, there was a little bit of information available about its products and their functions. I made the choice to learn as much as I possibly could in this new field. This is way before the internet, so finding information was a long process. It was clear to me then that there are so many factors to consider when drilling a hole. 

I had thought I would be home more. Nope, this wasn’t the case. 

GT: How did you decide to establish Thomson Tech? 

DT: I had started a journey some thirty years ago that now had taken me through all types of drilling techniques. Then through drilling fluid additives and the API standards and finishing up with solids control systems. I had learnt from the very start from my first driller, that the way to learn the correct information, best skills and knowledge was to work in that field and learn from the people within it. I quickly understood that what I wanted to know, wasn’t going to come from books. 

Over this time, I had built over 60 miniature drilling visual aids, ending with a miniature rig that can simulate any drill speed and at any drilling flow rate, while drilling down into clear Perspex tube that can show in real-time the effects of high-speed rotation on the solids within the annular space. 

It’s with these high rotational speeds and very small annular space that I started to question in my own mind some of the terminology’s use within the drilling fluid manuals I had pored over. So, I started making new miniature tooling that had to be fully hand-carved. In recent years, the development of 3D printing really helped speed the process up. After what seemed like forever and countless designs, I had one that worked as I wanted. It wasn’t until the slow-motion video on the iPhone that I could be 100% confident with it. I was able to confirm what I was trying to achieve by using a PHPA (long chain polymer) die tracer on the high-speed simulator. 

Over the years, I have walked down many lines of drilled core in countless core yards around the globe. More often than not, they are all out in the open and are continually exposed to the elements. It’s not only that, but most of them have also been out in the weather for years. It was this fact that made me ask the question. I wonder what is the percentage of core that has reacted to this? What I found out and what my new design can do was why I made the decision to be a hard rock drilling specialist. 

The two confirmations were the beginning of Thomson Tech. 

GT: How did you choose to make hard rock drilling the main focus of Thomson Tech? 

DT: Thomson Tech is a company of hard rock specialists because Diamond Drilling is often linked to Oil & Gas. The truth and reality is, it’s like chalk and cheese. Absolutely different in every way. 

If you recall, I mentioned I was a butcher and was learning to sharpen my knife and it would lead to where we are today. The very first time I put steel to stone I had running water going over my stone. The running water was keeping all the small solids from being between the steel and the stone. There for the steel was not wearing away all that fast. It was taking me hours to sharpen my knife. I asked the old butcher what I was doing wrong, and he said to let all the solids build up on the stone, as they will roll around and wear away the steel a lot quicker. 

When I saw the diamond drilling for the first time some thirty years ago, and while watching the cuttings coming out in the returns, along with seeing all the shiny drill pipe that came out of the hole, I knew that was the most abrasive environment possible, it was like the perfect storm, and the downhole tooling and drill pipe was in it. 

So, I thought I could change that. It takes a long time to really understand and even longer to implement change. This is hard rock drilling at its finest. 

Darren in the field
I still go back out on the leavers. But age is slowly catching up…

GT: Tell us the specifics of hard rock drilling? What equipment would you recommend for a successful hard rock drilling operation? 

DT: Thomson Tech focuses on hard rock drilling because, over the years, we as an industry have applied techniques from other methods like mud rotary, where formations are often soft, reactive, porous, cobble or have traveled. The drilling rotation speeds are low and usually have a large annular space. This type of drilling has been the baseline for the majority of learning. From the drilling fluid additives right through to the drilling rig designs. 

At Thomson Tech we have asked the question and looked at it for what it really is. High-speed rotation with a tiny annular space with hard and consolidated drilling conditions. Yes, I understand that there are soft, reactive, porous, cobble, fractured or even have traveled formation zones when diamond drilling underground. The overall percentage of these zones is very low across the board. So after learning this, we focused on the effects of high-speed millimeter and smoking packets of Whinny Blues (A Winfield Brand of cigarette). The truth is, I’m that second option, although I did give up the smokes 16 years ago. I still to this day, stand up and immerse myself in between the control panel and the mast. 

I personally believe the biggest effects on drilling in hard rock or in any tough conditions is the resistance to change. Now I’m not just talking about tripping out the rods and having a look at the bit and going, ‘Oh yeah, its polished’. And then giving it a good touch up and sending it back down. I’m referring to the willingness to try different things to get a better result. This seems to be an easy statement and the more I think about it, the deeper the rabbit hole gets. So, I will try to narrow it down from a personal perspective. You don’t know what you don’t know. If the driller hasn’t had the exposure to a highly-experienced operator across multiple drilling conditions, where is the knowledge coming from? 

Please don’t think that in what I’m saying, is that the drilling companies are not training, as there is more training now than there ever has been. But it’s still not the same as doing the time. So, because of this, it’s not unreasonable for a driller to have only one drilling technique that he applies to all types of soft and hard formations. Because they don’t know the options, it’s not so unreasonable to wonder why they get so steadfast on how they are doing it. And that not one person in the entire world cannot tell them any different (Hmmm, this too is also me at one stage or another). 

If I were to hand out a tip or food for thought. Viscosity in a diamond drilling fluid is not a good thing. It is a consequence of the function you are requiring. We drill with a tiny annular space where the rods are at high rotation speeds, chasing mineralization and not a gas or a liquid pay zone. 

GT: Can you explain the process of adjusting drilling fluid additives to specific projects? 

DT: It wasn’t until I started working on large diameter horizontal directional bore paths that I really did start to see the absolute power of drilling fluid engineering. My early days at MI-Swaco were such a massive learning curve, that looking back, I really don’t know how I managed it all. I know I couldn’t do it today. 

My first large diameter HDD river crossing, and I was to use the MI DRILPLEX drilling fluid system. Clay, mixed with metal oxide, starch and water. Who knew, that this combination would carry out small boulders from 600 m (1969 ft) away in an eight hundred mm (31.5 in) hole. That was a day of total euphoria for me, as I then watched it be pumped over a shaker deck. The shear thinning fluid magically and effortlessly separating away from the solids, and it still brings a smile to my face. It’s a drilling fluid system that requires attention to mixing procedures. It’s also very sensitive to other additives being introduced. Get it right, it’s amazing. Stuff it up, and you’re in for a world of pain.

GT: How crucial is the cleaning of drilling fluids from cutting? How effective and practical are the solids removal units?

DT: The removal of the solids from a circulating fluid loop is critical. Although to what degree will depend on the drilling fluid program and or the drilling technique. Colloidal solids are more likely required when building mud programs for soft, sand, reactive, porous, cobble and fractured formation zones. For instance, when drilling a water borehole.

The solids removal units are very effective, and they are becoming a little more practical with recent design changes. There are still a few challenges ahead with them being fully integrated into hard rock drilling. I personally do believe that solids removal will be a major part of the hard rock drilling fluid loop management going forward. What it will look like and how it’s done is still the ongoing question.

GT: High torque in deep holes is one of the issues every driller encounters. Can you tell us some out of the box solutions you’ve employed?

DT: Over the last ten years, we have been developing new bits, reamer and barrel designs that will allow a blended copolymer bead at nominated size to pass through all the designed downhole tooling. The blended beads then become a mechanical lubricant for the drill string. The design also uses the drill rod rotation speed to improve the solids removal from the bit, reamer, barrel and the back couplings. This zone is where the largest and highest SG solids are the most effected by the high g-force. The design also lowers the bit face formation pressure that happens when using high viscosity fluids and standard bit and reamer configurations. This can course pre-drilling pressurizing and pre-drilling saturation of sensitive formations. 

GT: How has COVID-19 influenced the production and the evolution of diamond drilling tools?

DT: The last couple of years have been a little unusual, to say at the least, and from a personal point of view. It’s has been very challenging and a little frustrating at times. I feel like I have been removed from the life blood of the industry. With the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, getting out to the mine sites or going to a rig was near impossible, let alone being able to travel any of the mining Expos. So, for the last couple of years, we have been limited to all that is happening and just kicked on in our own little bubble. 

Despite COVID-19, there is always evolution, that’s just the way everything is. Keep an eye out for very smart tooling and highly intelligent autonomous drill rigs with higher than ever drilling rotation speeds. And of course, the use of mechanical lubrication.

GT: Are Thomson Tech’s products manufactured in-house? 

DT: No, I’m not a true manufacture, I outsource this, all the tooling and bits are made by local companies. The drilling fluids are made or blended here in Western Australia and Thomson Tech owns the designs and patents. 

GT: Every manufacturer is offering series of drill bits, such as 13 to 15. But from my experience, the softest matrix is not always best for extremely hard rock. Why is that and what is the use of these high series then?

DT: The more drill bit brands that come on to the market, the dirtier the water gets. I’m not 100% convinced that the series numbers are as meaningful as they once were. As always, there are merely a guide to zero in on what to use. Since marketing is usually outsourced, it’s a very real possibility that the marketing creator may not quite have a full understanding of the key fundamentals. I absolutely understand this, as it takes all kinds of different skillsets to be great. 

So, this makes it very challenging when asked for a crossover. I still personally go back out on to the leavers for this reason, as I like to personally understand the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. As the rigs, fluids and drillers evolve, so must the bits. 

The Thomson Tech Turbulence Hybrid (Smart Bit) bit and the option to drop a couple of series to get the life up and use Thomson Tech Bean Bags (Bit sharpener) are coming soon.

GT: Moving on, which is the most challenging Australian region to drill into? What makes it so difficult?

DT: The most challenging region is the far North region in Australia, across the three States during the summer. The heat can be brutal, then throw in the humidity and you are pushing the human body to the extreme. The physicality of the work required on a drill rig in that environment must be carefully managed. The effects of dehydration happen fast and can be deadly. 

The most challenging underground drilling in my opinion, must be any site that’s drilling nickel. It’s just tricky to drill, you can put all the weight in the world on it and it still will not cut. When you do start cutting, it starts the torque up on you. I first thought the high torque was reaction, and then thought it was pressurization. It then led to me thinking it was the makeup water. Nope. Anyways, if you look up the SG of nickel, this will give you a clue to what’s going on. It makes drilling the very hard and tight-grained ground a walk in the park. With BIF (Banded Ironstone Formation) being a close second. From ridiculously hard to powdery soft, to cutting well to bit being polished, and all this has happened in 10 cm (≈ 4 in) of drilling.

GT: What’s the future of diamond drilling tools especially in Australia?

DT: I guess, I’m a little one-eyed when it comes to the direction tooling is going here in Australia, as we push towards fully autonomous drilling, along with higher rotation speeds and deeper bore paths. 

Downhole tooling will also have to change. At Thomson Tech this is what we are all about. The tooling that worked at 400 RPM at 200 m (656 ft) 30 years ago is now being used at 1400 RPM at 900 m (2953 ft). A combination of tooling design and drilling fluid engineering, that solely focus on the unique diamond drilling factors; this is the only direction. Blanket solutions are a thing of the past. 

GT: You are visiting many drill sites in Australia. Are you happy with the drilling market there? What do you think could be improved?

DT: It’s only in the last few months that we have started seeing the impact of the restrictions being eased, and site visits are now a major part of business again. The current market is extremely positive and the feedback on what we are doing is overwhelmingly fantastic. The local manufacturing is no different to everyone else around the country, or the globe for that matter – the demand for materials being higher than the supply.

It feels like we are on the winds of change as we push for more Australian-made products. Not because it will be Australian-made, unfortunately. The fast-rising costs and very long lead times are driving it. However, it is a wonderful feeling to be a small part of it. 

For more information visit: www.thomsontech.com.au

Read Issue 20 here: 

Issue 20 / 2022