Revolutionary Sails

Today’s speed records are set by boats equipped with carbon fibre composite sails on their masts.

Carbon fibre composite sails were developed in French-speaking Switzerland by the company North Thin Ply Technology. An interview with Gilles Rocher, the company’s Sales & Marketing Manager.

When and how was this new technology developed?

Development of the technology was launched at the very beginning of the new millennium when three sailors, including Gérard Gautier and François Mordasini, founded the company Createx and began to experiment with new ideas for producing sails which were more competitive and lighter than the very best available at that time.

The project was then supported by the Alinghi team for its participation in the America’s Cup, while North Sails bought a licence to use the technology in 2007.

This technology for producing a light, high-performance sail (very stable without distortion) is now used by North Sails and is known under the brand name 3Di.

Today, 3Di sails are a market reference in terms of lightness, performance and durability.

The same technological principles are used by North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), this time for high-performance composite applications. NTPT is a joint venture of Createx and the North Group, focusing entirely on the use of thin ply technology for rigid composite applications (sails falling under the aegis of North Sails).

The technology is entirely industrial and mature at North Sails and the same is true for composites at North Thin Ply Technology.

In which fields other than sails is it used?

Thin Ply Technology® is now used in F1 and motor sport in general, in other sports and leisure activities (fishing rods, golf clubs, cycle frames, etc.), in luxury applications such as Richard Mille watches, in industry, in drones, for Solar Impulse, very soon in the aerospace industry (several ongoing projects) and, in general, in any field where performances and/or weight-saving is essential.

What are its advantages over other processes/materials?

It offers improved mechanical performances compared to traditional composite materials.

What are the future prospects/applications?

In addition to the fields already mentioned, it is destined for the aeronautical sector in the long term. This is nevertheless a highly conservative sector which needs considerable time to evaluate new technologies.   

Production secrets

For the rigid composite of the 3Di sails, production is divided into two stages.

Stage 1: transformation of reels of carbon fibre (or other fibres such as aramid, quartz, etc.) into a wafer-thin ribbon in which the filaments are arranged so that they are parallel, straight and taut. The filaments are then impregnated with an epoxy resin which at this stage is kept in an intermediate state, i.e. neither liquid nor hard, but paste-like in order to remain between the carbon filaments.

In the world of composites, this type of ribbon is known as a “pre-impregnated unidirectional web” (pre-impregnated with resin). The particularity at NTPT is to make wafer-thin pre-impregnated webs which give the final composite a much better homogeneity, thereby optimising mechanical performance (by between +20% and +230% depending on the specific properties taken into consideration).

Stage 2: this pre-impregnated unidirectional web is transformed by robots into a stack of layers in which the orientation of the fibres is chosen specifically for each layer so that they operate efficiently in the final composite structure. The stack obtained is a pre-impregnated preform. This is what NTPT sells to its clients who are moulders of composite parts.