Interview: Issam Khoury decades of drilling
PMV catches up with Issam Khoury to discuss the ins and outs of drilling and piling and foundation engineering in the region
With more than 20 years under his belt with a company established nearly 50 years ago, Issam Khoury and his family’s Abu Dhabi-based company NSCC International, of which he is the vice president, know drilling and foundations in the UAE like few parties in the industry.
From tangential beginnings in onshore marine works, NSCC quickly developed its engineering capabilities and introduced both piling foundations to the UAE in the 1970s and later horizontal directional drilling (HDD) in the late 1990s — both times underpinning vital forward development in the country.
And while the company’s work reached its zenith in 2008, it’s safe to stay that in the subsequent years of the economic slow down, its long years of reputation and relationship building stood it in good stead to hold firm.
Revealingly, the Abu Dhabi contractor was selected by the Abu Dhabi Airports Company in 2009 to carry out the piling works for the Midfield Terminal project — irrefutably one of the largest works and by default foundation projects undertaken in the gulf region — with a scope involving more than 7,000 piles ranging from a single metre to over 30m in length across a substrate riddled with cavities.
“The Midfield Terminal was a very demanding project,” explains Khoury.
“At one point, we had 650 people working on that project, and 15 drilling or piling rigs working simultaneously for 24 hours a day. We reached a daily casting peak of about 2,800m3 — and that was sustained over many days.”
NSCC’s ability to consistently secure projects such as this is one of the reasons why the company has largely maintained the size of its fleet since the economic downturn, even though the volume of work has dropped.
“In the prime days of contracting here, we were working day in, day out — logging a cool 5,000hrs a year on some machines. But if you have the technical experience and the people to support the machines in good working condition, then why not?” asks Khoury.
“In Europe, this is unheard of: the average number of annual hours for a piece of equipment ought not to exceed 1,500hrs — it was that crazy back then.”
Today, NSCC is replacing its fleet of 30, but not expanding it — for the moment. “We’re not purchasing to increase our capacity; we’ve largely replaced,” Khoury continues.
“When we do purchase, it’s to replace ageing equipment — anything from eight to 10 years, or less if it’s been over-utilised. We sell machines, or trade them in, once they cost us too much to repair.
“The moment we see large costs to keep a machine operating in the gruelling working environment and the desert dust over here — that’s the point at which we say, ‘enough is enough, let’s replace the machine’.”
For the procurement of its drilling rigs and diaphragm wall units, the company sources from just two manufacturers — Bauer and Liebherr — based on a long working history and an acquired confidence with both.
“Bauer and Liebherr are our chosen manufacturer, because they have served us well over the years. They are very strong, durable and dependable — so that’s why we tend to stick to these two brands,” notes Khoury.
NSCC has little time to pull the punches in terms of vehicle power, having long since graduated in most of its spheres of activities up from lesser machines (rated by their torque in tonne-metres) to the greater ones.
“A lot of these machines that we use — Bauer and Liebherr — have 28Tm or even 36Tm capacities,” notes Khoury, noting that for a drilling rig the torque measures the ability to drill deeper and larger piles.
“We have some that are 15tm, some 20tm, but the 28tm and 36tm machines are the work horses, because they’re very versatile — they can do deep or shallow piling and we can adapt them to different methodologies.”
The works at Al Maryah Central were a case in point, where the machines were vastly over capacity in relation to the actual demands on site — which required only mid-range pile diameters at fairly insignificant depths of just 6m or 7m.
Khoury expands: “The drilling assembly on rigs use Kelly bars, and none that we have drill less than 20m in length.
“They are also sectional, so bars that are 24m in length are actually 8m in length, in three sections. The ones at Al Maryah Central would have been ones with four sections — each of 16m to 17m — so they could actually take you down to a depth of 68m.”
Using over-specced equipment might appear counter-intuitive at first, but it was the most efficient use of the resources to hand.
“We allocate resources depending on availability,” explains Khoury, noting that at Al Maryah, “we finished the main piling works about 25 days early — quite an accomplishment when you consider that the piling works were meant to be finished in 70 days. But we understood that the client was in a hurry to get things done, so we over-resourced it.”
However he adds: “Your whole supply chain needs to be tip-top as well — your concrete supplier and excavation contractor also need to have sufficient capacity for you to hand over the project on time. It’s no use finishing the piling works only for the excavation contractor to drag on for an extra three months.”
All in all, “foundation works make up the vast bulk, perhaps 90%” of NSCC’s activities, but they are by no means the only trick up the sleeves of the contractor, which also has three diaphragm wall units on its books.
“Diaphragm walls are different: they’re usually rectangular sections, excavated using grabs or cutters. A grab can be used to drill or excavate soft material; a cutter is used for drilling in solid rock — which is pretty much everywhere in Abu Dhabi,” details Khoury.
“We’ve done ample diaphragm walls — the largest on the Al Raha beach development, where, with another company, we built 22km of diaphragm wall as the sea wall.”
NSCC’s most dramatic technological addition to the region has been horizontal directional drilling, which it introduced in 1996, three years after Issam Khoury joined the business.
“HDD is a form of tunnelling — not for transport systems; but for utilities. We introduced the technique into the Gulf and drilled two parallel water pipelines linking Mina in Abu Dhabi with Lulu Island in 1998. The pipelines follow a parabolic trajectory underground and are 90cm-wide and 950m-long,” Khoury notes.
“It’s derived from oil and gas applications, where you drill vertically, but then meander through the rock using guidance tools. In HDD, there is a special head and wire-line steering systems that tell you where you are exactly when you’re drilling.”
NSCC was responsible for installing much of the fibre-optic cabling across most of the UAE for Lucent technologies, which 15 years ago won the main contract from the UAE military.
Khoury explains: “We came in, and wherever there was a road, we would drill under the road so that they didn’t have to manually excavate it and ruin the roads and disrupt traffic.”
He adds that as much as the UAE is associated with continuous roadworks and excavation, “the disruption to traffic in the UAE is actually quite low compared to countries where horizontal drilling has not been adopted, and the preference here is always to install by non-disruptive methods where possible”.
NSCC has since pulled out of smaller road crossings — now an over-populated market — and focuses on just three large-bore Streicher 350t machines with 1,119kW engines.
“HDD, as we’ve found out over the years, is actually a very risky business, because you are drilling in the unknown,” notes Khoury.
“On certain projects and in certain locations you find cavities and old structures — remnants of bridges constructed 110 years that you’re not aware of. When that happens, and your pipeline gets stuck as you start pulling through, you have a real problem.”
While NSCC no doubt holds a primal position in the UAE’s history of drilling innovations, today its biggest strength lies in its facilities.
Since 2007, NSCC has operated its own hydraulic testing facility — one of only a handful in Abu Dhabi — at its plant maintenance facility and yard in Musaffah.
Khoury explains: “We do it in-house because it’s more cost effective and much more efficient. If I give a motor to a third party for testing, it could take a week, but at our facility we can get it done in 30 minutes.”
NSCC also runs a manufactory with design engineers and technicians to fabricate in excess of $5.4m in equipment annually, including Kelly bars, drilling augers, buckets, bentonite tanks and pile cutters.
Khoury adds: “It’s all about investing in the people who have worked in the hydraulic motors and components industries, and who are aware of the testing requirements.”
However, the challenge of finding work still persists, and Khoury notes: “It’s a good day and you’re doing well when you have 80% or 90% of your resources working, but if I had to give you an average, I’d say it was 60% to 70%.”
The HDD part of its operations is highly mobile, as the machines can be containerised and shipped, and NSCC is bidding for projects in Turkey, Azerbaijan and even New Zealand.
Foundation work is less flexible, and though NSCC plied its trade in Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Lebanon, the volume of work was not enough to sustain operations.
Khoury notes: “Inevitably you end up stayng in three or four markets.”
Today, Dubai is NSCC’s biggest market, followed by Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, though visas are a problem in the latter.
Across its core markets, NSCC has also notably worked on a hat trick of museums: the Etihad Museum in Dubai, Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi for TDIC; and Qatar National Museum — currently being built by Hyundai.
NSCC was also the first contractor to set foot on the Palm Jumeirah for Nakheel in 2003, and remained on site for the following six years.
And work just keeps coming, as Khoury adds: “One day we met Emaar and they said: ‘We have a large project, can you start?’ We’ve had a good relationship ever since and several contracts with them — Sky View being the largest.”