by Chase Beakley
Machinists don’t like to talk. They listen. They listen to their customers and draw custom designs to increase productivity and safety. They listen for a phone that might call them out for a rig repair at any time of the day or night. They listened to my questions and when it came time to answer, they talked about their work, debating the cost effectiveness of Witchita versus hydraulic brakes, and they talked about what they’ve learned in 30 years of tearing things down and building them back up. But they didn’t talk about themselves, and it’s time someone did.
In West Texas, substance always trumps style, and we’re quicker than most to praise folks who work long hours to earn a living. But the mechanics and foremen that build our industry, and repair it when it breaks, are still working behind the scenes, away from the limelight.
As a machinist, Fabian Dehoyos knows that his customers appreciate his work even if it isn’t fully acknowledged by everyone else, and for the most part he’s okay with that. Growing up the son of a gravedigger in Big Spring, Texas, Dehoyos saw his father quietly providing for his family, and he used that as a model for his efforts in school. “I knew education would be important and I was blessed to have a good school where we learned to get along with one another and work hard, and that anything was possible,” he said.
After finishing school, Dehoyos bounced around jobs but found that machining allowed him to do two things he’d always loved,: “helping people and fixing stuff.” He started as a machinist in 2002, and ended up at Murdock Machine in Artesia, N.M.
Murdock’s specialty is pump fabrication and repair. They send mechanics out on repairs all throughout Eastern New Mexico and create custom designed equipment for a wide range of customers, including the nearby Navajo Refinery. “I just try to live as I work, and be right. If you have a positive attitude you can make things happen.” The folks at Murdock are definitely making things happen and exemplify a mastery of both sides of the oil field machining business.
In order to excel, machine shops have to be proficient at two distinct skills: fabrication and repair. Fabrication requires intimate knowledge of a piece of equipment, and a nose for innovation. Most shops focus on making one thing exceptionally well, whether it be pumps, draw-works, or valves, and fierce competition has made the Basin a hotbed for oil field equipment manufacturing. Parts made here have ended up on rigs as far away as Russia and the Middle East.
Creating equipment that holds up under extreme drilling conditions requires the planning of engineers and highly skilled machinists. At Azteca Fabrication in Monahans, Luis Tajera oversees the construction of the shop’s high-pressure separators. With a degree in mechanical engineering, he was hired on as engineering manager and now manages the design and construction of almost everything that comes out of the shop. He also goes to great lengths to ensure that anything made at Azteca stands up to the safety codes established by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
All of Azteca’s code equipment goes through rigorous high-pressure tests and quality control. Recently, production companies have been looking to cut costs and the demand for cheaper non-ASME equipment has skyrocketed, but Azteca’s commitment to quality and safety has led them to take a different approach to continue growing. Rather than compromise their standards to make a quick buck, they’ve started expanding their sales team to push into new markets in North Dakota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. With an extended reach, they’re finding more and more customers willing to invest in quality separators, and Tajera is hard at work, “trying to find every possible way to save money, so we can pass those savings on to our customers.”
Ironically, another area where business is growing for Azteca is repairs on cheaper separators that production companies have already bought. Tajera notes that this summer especially, “We’ve seen a lot more repair work from our customers, getting us to come and fix equipment that they got from someone else.”
If fabrication requires the deep expertise of a specialist, repair work demands the breadth of knowledge of a jack-of-all-trades. When equipment breaks down, field mechanics come to the rescue and they’re tasked with fixing the problem even if this means working with equipment that didn’t come out of their shop, or a problem caused by human error rather than equipment malfunction. Every call is a brand new challenge.
For Bobby Langston, a mechanic foreman at WWL Industries in Odessa, that perpetual newness is part of his fascination with the job. “When you get there you have to tear it apart and find the problem. You start searching back. Sometimes you have a noise you can’t locate. It’s a similar process each time but finding the problem is always a challenge. That’s what I like,” said Langston.
WWL focuses on draw-works and they send mechanics out as far out as Louisiana for repairs. Mechanics are always on call, and going out to a job could mean working around the clock until they can get the rig running again. Langston once worked over 160 hours of overtime alone in a single two-week pay period. For one particular job on an offshore rig, Langston had to work 38 hours straight to fix the draw-works.
“Towards the end of the job, the hands were keeping an eye on me and I fell asleep standing up against the derrick leg for at least an hour,” Langston recalls.
Being on call 24/7 and working long hours aren’t the only credentials you need to be a field mechanic. You also have to have an incredible breadth of knowledge. Mechanics can’t get by on familiarity with only certain parts of the rig, because the equipment is often extremely specialized and diverse. A repair might require them to work outside their particular niche, so they have to be confident in diagnosing the issue and finding a solution no matter what that entails. That holistic understanding takes a lot of hours on the job to cultivate.
Most mechanics learn those valuable lessons from more seasoned veterans in the shop, and sometimes a particularly difficult problem might require all the mechanics to put their heads together to solve it. Darren Clark, manager of operations at Albritton Machine, has been in the business for more than 30 years but he still remembers lessons he learned from older mechanics when he was starting out.
“You can tell when a man knows what he’s doing. It doesn’t take long to show up,” Clark says, “but you’ve got to pay attention and be open. They’ve got lessons you can’t learn from a book.”
One lesson Darren has learned is how weather affects the violent fluctuations in the industry. He’s ridden the oil price roller coaster before and has seen less savvy businesses come and go in the process. He knows to not get caught up in the euphoria but to make smart, steady moves to handle the growth instead.
During the last major downturn in the ’80s, Clark led Albritton in a change from making production equipment to centrifugal pumps for the pipeline, a section of the market that’s more resistant to fluctuations in oil prices. He still tries to teach his young employees to live within in their means, even when business is booming. “Most of our guys have been through several booms and busts and have warned the young guys about it,” he says.
Balancing tried and true wisdom in the face of continuing innovation is another challenge facing machine shops in the Basin. Albritton is embracing advances in 3D printing to create molds for its equipment, and the proliferation of precise vibration sensors help them make for more exact repairs. But mechanics can’t rely on technology alone. Clark has been called to repair pumps that were installed in the 1930s and are still in use. For those cases, he’s got to rely on years of work breaking things down and building them back up.
The embrace of both the new and old is what’s kept Albritton in business for so long and Clark is confident that they’ll continue to thrive no matter what challenges arise. “We’ve seen this before—it’s no surprise,” he remarks.
Machine shops have been around as long as there have been rigs to construct and repairs to be made. As the industry has grown and changed, they’ve grown as well, expanding into new technologies and continuing to produce custom equipment that increases productivity and makes the fields safer. When things break down, field mechanics are at the ready and prepared to work non-stop until the problem’s solved, drawing on expertise accumulated over decades. Their hands build the equipment that makes up the Basin, and those same hands are there to put things back together when they fall apart.
They play a crucial role in our community and deserve some recognition. Just don’t expect to hear them ask for it.
Chase Beakley is a freelance writer based in Texas. This is his first article for PBOG Magazine.