By Eric Peterson | Feb 06, 2023
Industrial diamond products
Dr. H. Tracy Hall invented the process to manufacture diamonds in a lab while working for General Electric in 1954.
Hall took a job as a professor at Brigham Young University the next year and founded the company now known as MegaDiamond with a pair of colleagues in 1966. Hall was ultimately granted 19 patents over the course of his career, as diamonds emerged as a staple for high-wear industrial applications.
Initially monikered Mega Pressure Products, MegaDiamond was a first mover in the manufacturing of polycrystalline diamond (PCD) materials. In the 1970s, the company started making PCD products for tools for rock drilling and cutting. Now owned by SLB (NYSE: SLB, formerly Schlumberger), MegaDiamond's products are geared towards the same applications largely for the energy market today.
Hall's invention catalyzed a new market, says Scott Horman, MegaDiamond's business development manager and a company employee since 1985. "What it did was allow industry access to diamonds," he explains. Before the advent of lab-made PCDs, industrial users relied on "was cast off from the gem industry."
Horman calls PCDs "very useful engineering material, being the hardest of all materials and also having some amazing thermal conductivity and optical properties."
"We're very much pushing into the higher end of the technology to create unique rock-drilling components," he adds. "That has been our focus in the last 20 years, and expanding what you can make out of diamond has been our key."
That means MegaDiamond is "getting away from just a flat slab on the end of a cylinder to a variety of shapes that are more conducive to efficient rock cutting," says Horman. 3D-shaped cutters can drill at a 20 to 80 percent faster rate of penetration than conventional cutters. "We're producing custom shapes to more efficiently adapt to different rock types, formation types, and different cutting applications."
The manufacturing operation includes 132,000 square feet in a pair of facilities with 320 employees in Provo and a 65-employee sister company in Italy. "It starts with choosing the very best raw materials," says Horman. "We buy high-grade diamond powders from very select suppliers."
After blending and purifying processes, technicians compact the powders into refractory metal cups to manufacture the products. "Diamond powders are fused together at immense temperature and pressure to form a monolithic slab of diamond," says Horman. "We're dealing with processes that we can't even directly measure. Sintering the diamond in conditions of 1 million PSI and 1,500 degrees Celsius, it would be glowing white-hot if you could observe it, but it's all contained within a pressure capsule."
The crux is "controlling that process to make it highly repeatable, so we get the same properties day in, day out, week after week, month after month," he adds. "That also has been one of the biggest challenges in the world of industrial diamond products. It's just product consistency by controlling very extreme processes."
The company's key markets are oil and gas, mining, and road construction. "The oil and gas industry is by far the biggest," says Horman.
The typical well depth has tripled from about 4,000 feet to 12,000 feet in the last decade, he adds, so durable cutting tools are more important than ever. "When you have equipment two miles below the Earth's surface, it has to perform and not wear out," says Horman.
After a slowdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, MegaDiamond has bounced back in a big way. "Coming out of 2020, we can't make product fast enough," says Horman.
Challenges: "There's always the threat of low-cost offshore products," says Horman. Diamond products from China "are very cheap, but they're lacking in performance and reliability."
The boom-and-bust energy cycle is another challenge: "We really ride the roller coaster that the oil industry experiences," says Horman.
Opportunities: "Historically, since being owned by a drill-bit manufacturer since the 1980s, much of our production has gone to sister companies, but we have expanded -- particularly over the last eight years -- to selling more and more outside the group," says Horman. "It's gone from about 10 percent of our business to over half of our business in 2022, and we expect that to continue."
He adds, "We're also focusing on moving beyond oil and gas drilling. What rock-drilling, earth-drilling challenges are there in the future of industry?" Targets include "anything where wear and heat management are issues." Horman cites geothermal drilling as a potential driver.
Mining and road construction are also growing markets for MegaDiamond. "Battery technology is really driving the need for a lot of different metals -- lithium, copper -- so the mining industry's going very strong," says Horman. "Diamond tools and diamond drill bits are enabling technologies for autonomous [mining] rigs."
In road construction, he says, "We're going in where carbide tools are used, carbide picks, which are like a throwaway item. We're replacing a $10 pick with a $250 pick. . . . It's all about keeping the paving equipment and the asphalt-milling equipment running and not stopping to change out picks."
Needs: Talent, including a number of machine operators. "The job market in the western U.S. has been booming coming out of COVID," says Horman. "If we could find 30 reliable people, we would hire them. We'd like to get our head count up."