The history of tri-cone drill bit development stretches back over 100 years. It may seem strange to think that such a precision piece of equipment from the present has roots dating back to 1908, but the road to the level of innovation in modern tri-cone bits is a long one.
Howard Hughes and the beginning of a business empire
Before there was the tri-cone drill with its 3 interlocking rollers Howard R. Hughes Sr. invented a dual-cone rotary drill which revolutionized the oil drilling rigs of the time. When he founded the Hughes Tool Company in 1908 (then the Sharp-Hughes tool company until 1912) he had a patent for the first roller cutter drill bit ever made and had founded of one of America’s most notable corporate dynasties. When he died in 1924, 9 years before the tri-cone drill bit would be invented, ownership of the company passed to his famous son, Howard Hughes Jr. who had himself declared legally an adult so he could fend off relatives squabbling over his father’s will and take full control of the company that would soon create the tri-cone drill bit.
The young Mr. Hughes and his tri-cone powered stranglehold on the drilling industry take off!
In addition to a high-flying life of Hollywood glamor, gorgeous actresses, death defying aviation, and producing the original 1932 film “Scarface” (50 years before Al Pacino made it famous in the better known remake) Howard Hughes Jr. was also a business magnet who saw the tri-cone drill bit invented by a Hughes Tool Company researcher, and reinvented the oil drilling industry a second time. Five years before the invention of this tri-cone bit, Cemented Carbide, an early Tungsten Carbide alloy was developed and brought over to America. Although not always combined at first, the Hughes company tri-cone patent along with the new synthetic metals allowed the Hughes Tool Company to become the only way for Western drilling companies to use tri-cone drill bits. The speed and competitive advantage of these early tri-cone drill bits was massive compared to the technology previously available, and every serious drilling company had no choice but to use Hughes brand tri-cone bits… or move to Russia for Soviet knock-offs.
The patent expires and tri-cone drill bit race is on
In 1951 the Hughes company patent on the tri-cone drill bit ran out, and competitors around the world began to start manufacturing drill bits with the superior tri-cone design. Although the Hughes company initially maintained a huge market share thanks to the initial tri-cone patent, the number of competitors reduced this dramatically over time. As of 2000 they no longer had tri-cone market dominance, and as of 2011 the company was acquired by a conglomerate.
Contemporary tri-cone drill bits
Luckily, Tri-Cone drill bit innovations didn’t stop with the expiry of the Hughes patent. Additional improvements in manufacturing allowed TCI (Tungsten Carbide Insert) drill bits to become much more commonly used. Tungsten carbide inserts allow the tri-cone drill bits to have remarkable hardness, endurance, and strength, while making the shaft out of more conventional alloys means the drilling rig does not have to worry about the material’s brittleness under extreme pressures. Tri-cone bits have also seen significant innovation the design of the drill bits themselves: Open roller bearings are the conventional standard, but sealed roller bearings improve the life span of the tri-cone bit dramatically. Sealed roller bears can also incorporate journal bearings for excellent durability and resistance to wear and tear. Innovation is a constant process and further refinement continues to improve tri-cone drilling capacity around the world.
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