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Journey-man returns home

After taking his innovations from Australia to an international platform, founder of trenchless company Edge Underground and creator of the Vermeer AXIS Guided Boring system Stuart Harrison has come back to the land Down Under. Originally speaking to Great Southern Press publication Trenchless Australasia, Mr Harrison speaks about his passion for innovation, what his experience in the trenchless industry has taught him and what he sees for the future of trenchless technology.

Mr Harrison began his career in his father’s excavation company, and was involved in the installation of sewer and water pipelines for more than 25 years using various open-cut and trenchless methods.

In 1999 he took the opportunity to start a trenchless division of his father’s company and by late 2000 he began importing and testing numerous international microtunnelling machines, none of which seemed to fill the need for trenchless technology in gravity sewers. He discovered that none of these methods combined pinpoint accuracy with productivity, and so began developing his own trenchless solution, a vacuum microtunnelling system.

Two years later, his patented guided boring system was born and Mr Harrison started his own contracting company. Over the next three years, Mr Harrison’s company built five units and successfully installed several hundred thousand feet of sewer and water lines using the new technology. After many prototypes and modifications, by 2005 he felt that he had created a worthwhile product, at which point he started travelling to assess the system capabilities in the world market. It became obvious that the technology had a valid place in the world market.

In 2006, Mr Harrison met with Vermeer Corporation about the technology and they reached an agreement for Vermeer to acquire his patented technology. Over the next three years, Vermeer worked to refine the technology and bring the AXIS-guided boring system to market.

Award-winning in the True North

By the end of 2009, the technology now know as the Vermeer AXIS-Guided Boring system was launched at the international No-Dig in Toronto, Canada, where it won the Innovative New Product award.

In 2009, Mr Harrison started Edge Underground, predominantly working in Australia after first commencing in the United States. Edge Underground provides microtunnelling, pipe jacking, thrust boring and laser tunnel boring services, with the aim of offering precision installations and innovative, efficient solutions.

Speaking on the importance of innovation, Mr Harrison says “We constantly see the progression of technology which means we do it better, faster and more often. The fear factor of trenchless is reducing as the knowledge of the industry grows. We have more options available to us, such as the kind of pipe and equipment we use, and we definitely have the big guys taking notice – CAT, Komatsu – as validation of our industry’s future.

“The most important things I have learnt about the trenchless industry are: always reduce risk i.e. spend the money up front, be honest about the risks and plan with contingencies, only do it if you are passionate about it (it shows), refer a job rather than overstate your capabilities, do everything the best you can – consistency is the key.”

Following the launch of his product, Mr Harrison led major demonstrations and customer training worldwide. Edge Underground was established in the US initially to fill the market void. Many of Edge Underground’s projects in this period were the subject of papers and presentations at industry events.

Breaking new ground

From 2008 through to the end of 2011Mr Harrison was thoroughly involved with the AXIS Guided Boring System, including research and development testing, contractor validation, consulting to numerous engineering consultancy firms and direct to cities and start-ups with companies like BRH Garver and Midwest Mole; SSC Boring in the US and Avertex and RocSol in Canada. Mr Harrison notes the valuable experiences he has gained from working with other companies.

Mr Harrison says “Working on projects with Midwest Mole – whether they be as an AXIS expert trainer or as a joint venture with Edge – the opportunity to work with the best and share our visions has been truly refreshing and totally enlightening.
I love taking on tough projects with other passionate, innovative parties.”

In 2012, the company undertook multiple major projects in a wide variety of conditions, including sand, silt, clay, shale, rock and mixed, for multiple major contractors including Thiess, John Holland and Abi Group, as well as many smaller contractors on the east coast of Australia.

“From below water table sand and silt to 250 Mpa rock and everything in between, we have tested and whilst there are conditions I try to avoid – these conditions are getting fewer,” Mr Harrison says.

Advice for industry

Recently Mr Harrison has travelled frequently to the US and Europe and has been a key speaker at industry events. He sees a well-rounded approach as the attitude that will drive the trenchless industry into the future.

“Initially I focused on equipment, however the progression is reliant on a total package solution as it is the accumulated total of many factors that is increasing the success of the industry.

“Initially the philosophy was trenchless as a last resort and slowly but surely we are seeing trenchless as the first choice – the true costs are starting to be recognised.

“As more options become available, whether that be equipment, materials or supplies – trenchless companies are better equipped to reduce their risk and so improve the success ratio.”

Whether it be pipe jacking, free boring or pulling pipe back in a wide range of conditions, Mr Harrison believes his company is packed with knowledge, experience and desire.

“When looking for a contractor I believe the focus needs to be capability-based as the cost of trenchless failures gives everyone involved a black eye. We all need to look to reduce risk in order to increase success. If the risks cannot be mitigated then all parties must be aware,” he explains.

The man behind the machine

Mr Harrison is based in Clyde in Melbourne’s outer south-east. Currently he continues to develop equipment in conjunction with Vermeer Corporation and is constantly looking to increase microtunnelling capabilities. He is married with three young boys of three, six and 11 months, coaches Auskick and also supports Variety Australia. Aside from his family commitments, he continues to run Edge Underground.

Mr Harrison has travelled the world for six years as a microtunnelling expert working on equipment research and development and trouble shooting. Within Australia he has been a pioneer within the microtunnelling industry for over a decade.

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