From tricone bits to diamond tips: the evolution of industrial drill bits in the 20th century

The pursuit of oil has driven innovation for hundreds of years, and was a major industrial challenge for the entirety of the 20th century. Countless innovations from rotary drills, to tricone bits, to offshore drilling have made oil exploration one of the most agile and persistent industries of the past 100 years. The 20th century saw a technological jump from methods that had been used for water well drilling for hundreds of years, to advanced specialization and bespoke parts like tricone bits and horizontal drilling in the span of a single generation. This article will outline the advancements in industrial drilling made over the last 100 years with the aim of highlighting crucial developments such as the tricone.


From Drake’s cable-tool to Hughes tricone bits: increased demand demands increased production

Up until the 1880s oil drilling was a slow and often labour intensive process. Tricone bits weren’t even a possibility at the time, as drilling used a “cable-tool” system, in which drill bits were carried high in the air by a cable, and then dropped into the well. Gravity provided the energy and the drill bit impact of the drill bit shatters the rock, a far cry from the sophisticated engineering of modern tricone bits. The downfall of this method was the immense amount of energy required to raise the drill to be dropped again, and the time required to manually clear the well of debris. This method in the 1880s with the introduction of rotary drilling, opening the door for future advancements in tricone drill bits and drill strings. Once the rotary drill bit was invented the door was open for new bits designs, such as the tricone, to take advantage of the spin provided by the rotation for more efficient drilling. Additionally it would eventually lead to more efficient ways to pump debris from the bore hole, eventually leading to advanced tricone bits with compressed air and lubricants supplied directly to the drill bit down the length of the drill string. The earliest tricone bits were developed by the Hughes Tool company in 1933, giving them a virtual lock on the market until the patent on tricone bits ended in the 1950s. The design of tricone bits allows the rotary force of the drill to propel three interlocked drill “buttons” (imagine three smaller drill bits working together to make up one tricone), providing both an increased drilling surface and a better rate of drilling.

Tricones get advanced: how material sciences allowed the ubiquitous tricone bits to become even more effective

The discovery of methods to produce both tungsten carbide inserts (TCI) for tricone bits, and cheap industrial diamonds for fixed cutter bits, opened up a range of new drilling options. These new tricone bits could drill much more quickly, last much longer, and more reliably drill through heavy rock formations. Tungsten Carbide Inserts replace the surfaces on the buttons with a far harder and more durable material, meaning the tricone bits need to be replaced less frequently and fewer interruptions in drilling are required. In addition to advances on the tricone bits themselves, material advances also allowed the drill strings to perform more complex tasks. Such as carrying down lubricants or compressed air that can blast debris away through special channels in the tricone bit and help carry it back to the surface.

Progress marches on: the future of tricones and drill bits

It’s unlikely tricones will ever cease seeing heavy use in industrial well drilling, however the rise of polycrystalline diamond compound fixed tooth bits mean there are more options than ever when going under the ground. Who knows what material the tricone bits of the future will be made from?


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