Procuring Equipment: Trends in use of tunnelling machinery

Trends in use of tunnelling machinery

According to India Infrastructure Research, the Indian tunnelling equipment market (comprising completed and ongoing projects) is estimated to be worth Rs 400 billion-Rs 700 billion. This cost varies with the type of tunnelling method used for construction and the options for sourcing (purchasing/renting) equipment. Tunnel developers usually prefer procuring certain equipment such as tunnel boring machines (TBMs), shotcrete machines, gantry cranes and backhoe loaders, while other equipment such as mobile cranes, mini and wheeled excavators, and crawler loaders are preferred to be rented for projects. The selection of a procurement option is determined by factors such as the availability of funds, the number of works hours required, proposed timelines and work schedules.  This in turn also influences the total costs of tunnelling works.

The two most prominent technologies for tunnel construction in India are the drill-and-blast and tunnel boring methods. Some of the key equipment used in the drill-and-blast method are double boom jumbo machines (underground drilling machines), road headers (self-propelled rock cutting machines for excavating tunnels without using explosives) and drilling rigs (used to dig holes in the subsurface). Double boom jumbo machines dominate the drill-and-blast equipment market. Contractors usually prefer to purchase or procure these machines. In terms of providers of drill-and-blast equipment, Sandvik and Atlas Copco are the market leaders, holding over 90 per cent of the market share. Other players in the market include Caterpillar, JCB, Normet, Okumura, Soilmec, Akkerman, Doosan and Volvo.

Meanwhile, in the TBM market in India, open-mode TBMs, earth pressure balance (EPB) machines and mixed shield or slurry TBMs are deployed on the basis of soil content and geographical terrain of project sites. Open-mode TBMs do not require any face support and are mainly used for construction on very consistent and firm ground. EPB machines are deployed on cohesive soils with a high clay and silt content and low water permeability. These machines use the excavated soil directly as a support medium. Slurry TBMs are used on highly permeable and unstable terrain. The front shield of the slurry TBM is filled with excavated material to balance the pressure exerted by the terrain. These machines are usually purchased by tunnel developers. However, since they are used for a short period of time, manufacturers often sell them with buy-back options.

The use of TBMs in the Indian tunnelling industry has gained traction in recent years, especially in the urban metro rail, water supply and irrigation sectors. TBMs were first used in the Delhi Metro, Phase II, project. Subsequently, most metro works across cities have been undertaken using the TBM technique. This trend has been driven by the need to provide urban infrastructure services in areas characterised by heavy traffic movement, congestion and space constraints.

Tunnel construction contractors primarily import TBMs designed and manufactured by foreign suppliers. At present, Herrenknecht of Germany dominates the TBM market in India, accounting for over 56 per cent of the equipment provider market share. The company has deployed over 35 TBMs for different metro projects. Recently, new players such as THI and Terratec have also started supplying these machines in the country.

Recent trends

In recent years, equipment and machinery providers have expanded the scope of services provided by them. Besides supplying equipment, companies today are also extending services such as logistics support, on-site first-time assembly, technical assistance, specialised manpower for TBM maintenance and on-site excavation services.

Meanwhile, the TBM market structure has evolved substantially in recent years, with an influx of new domestic and foreign players. Domestic companies are either acquiring equity stakes or entering into agreements with foreign TBM manufacturers to meet the increasing domestic demand for these machines. At the same time, contractors are exploring new markets for importing tunnelling machineries. This has led to substantial fluctuations in the shares of various countries exporting tunnelling and other boring machines to India. For instance, China’s share declined sharply from 84 per cent in 2011-12 to 29 per cent in 2014-15. In contrast, Singapore, Finland and Germany significantly increased their tunnelling machinery exports to India during the same period.


India Infrastructure Research estimates that depending on the type of equipment used, Rs 570 billion-Rs1,100 billion will be spent on procuring equipment and machinery for upcoming tunnel projects in the next three-four years. In terms of length, it is estimated that hydro projects will present most of this opportunity, followed by railways. In contrast, in terms of value, metro rail projects will offer the maximum opportunity for tunnelling equipment providers. These sectors will thus further increase the demand for TBMs in the domestic market. However, given the greater inclination towards the adoption of conventional techniques such as drill-and-blast, a substantial demand for simple equipment such as drillers, excavators, loaders, cranes, etc. can also be expected in the near future.