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    Textiles to Composites: 3D Moulding and Automated Fiber Placement for Flexible Membranes

    Bill Pearson, North Sails

    High performance applications demand very thin and light membranes or structures, this is particularly true in almost all performance sport applications; be it sailing, motorsport, or track and field. Increasingly, light and stiff structures are of interest in other fields as well. The sailmaking industry has developed large surface area (up to 500 sqM) articulating and reconfigurable 3-Dimensional moulds, for producing unitary and monolithic tension membranes full size, and employing robotic arms with interchangeable tool heads for bespoke fiber placement. The deployment of fabrication robotics and automated manufacturing strategies for this “mass customization” of fairly large scale flexible membranes has broad implications for design and manufacture in many diverse fields.

    The specificity of the design and technique is representative of the most radical advances in the field of textiles today, even as the technology approaches maturity in the sailmaking industry. In this new world designers and engineers now have direct access through their computers to the manufacturing shop floor in order to drive machine tool paths directly for the creation of custom variations in fiber densities, orientations, and trajectories, throughout a given structure.

    This has opened up a new world where bespoke fiber orientations in a modern structure can be asymmetric. In a modern sail for instance, the placement of fibers reflects anticipated wind loads and variations in the stress field as the boat moves through the waves. The variation in fiber density and orientation allows the designer to optimize locally for strength and stiffness. This process allows he/she to put fiber only where it is required, and thus make the lightest structure possible for a given application. Designers are thus liberated from the tyranny of the binary structure, the 0/90 degree orientations of fibers in textiles (warp and weft), through the digital world of bespoke manufacture. Symmetry is the enemy of material economy. When fiber density is equal across the breath of the material, it is inefficient not only for structure reasons, but also in terms of material usage, which affects both the environmental and manufacturing costs in negative ways. In addition to the digitally driven reconfigurable moulds and customized tool paths, these fabrication strategies are on the vanguard of a revolution in materials. Textile like materials (ie flexible) are being manufactured using the tools and materials from the world of carbon fibre composites (ie rigid structures).

    This marrying of the hard and soft world of materials, where textile structures can be produced in custom moulded shapes has far reaching consequences across broad range of fields and human endeavors. In last few years this technology has been migrating from the sailmaking industry into areas such as Formula One motor sport, solar power airplanes, and is now pushing into some areas of consumer goods fabrication where custom moulded textile apparel might not be very far away from reality.



    Bill Pearson is Technical Director of North Sails, the world’s largest sailmaking firm, responsible for technology and global materials development. He has overseen the development of the one piece moulded sails technology (3DL), and now their latest IP for fiber/resin composite sails (3Di). With North Sails he has been at the forefront of the intersection between textiles, composites, and fibrous systems for performance applications. He is a leader in the emerging field of the seamless integration of hard and soft structures, and has a keen interest in pursuing cross-platform applications.

    Bill writes frequently for various sailing publications on technology and composites, most recently a six part series in Seahorse International Sailing on the intersection between Textiles and Composites and how North Sails technologies are being deployed in Formula One cars, in the aerospace industry, and being used in unique design applications. Outside of the marine industry he has worked on projects with various designers and architects as a materials designer and consultant. Most recently on a ‘Textile Room’ pavilion for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art with the PATTERNS practice in LA. Additionally, he work on two ground breaking projects with architect Greg Lynn incorporating sail technology and materials into GLF designs; the world’s lightest seating for the Hyperlinks exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carbon Crystal Sails project for Swarovski. Bill contributed a chapter to Lynn’s last book Composites, Surfaces, and Software, as well as Chapters in Material Beyond Materials; Composite Tectonics, and in Manufacturing Processes for Design Professionals. In 2012 he helped develop and teach a new graduate studio at SCI-Arc entitled Textile Tectonics, which is part of the new Emerging Systems and Technologies curriculum.

    As an apprenticed sailmaker and a former professional yachtsman who has competed in most of the world’s major Ocean Races, including the Whitbread Around the World Race, and a number of sailing expeditions to remote parts of the world. He has worked with North Sails for 23 years in many capacities internationally. Pearson has a BS in Management from the University of South Carolina, and currently divides his time between San Francisco, CA and Incline Village, Nevada.


    Bill Pearson

    North Sails

    2379 Heybourne Road NV

    89423 Minden (USA)



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