3Di sails keep Minden’s North Sails out front
December 7, 2018
The Volvo Ocean Race is hailed as the toughest team competition in sport — and for good reason. Teams competing in the 2017-2018 race started in Spain in October 2017 and raced more than 45,000 nautical miles around the world to the finish line at The Hague in the Netherlands in June.
The race is as much a test of equipment strength as it is of sailors' fortitude. It's not by chance that every boat competing in the Volvo Ocean Race used sails manufactured in Minden.
North Sails' manufacturing facility in the Carson Valley produces sails used by sailors around the globe, from well-heeled owners of large luxury sailing yachts to crews competing in the famed America's Cup sailing race.
North Sails occupies two buildings in Minden, one on Heybourne Road and a second facility on Business Parkway that it expanded into in 2011. The two buildings total about 130,000 square feet. North Sails needed the additional space when it revamped its manufacturing processes to shift away from producing yarn-based 3-dimensional sails (3DL) to an innovative fiber-based 3-D manufacturing process (3di).
Whereas the 3DL processes used layers of film, glue and yarn to make sails, the 3Di processes uses only filaments and a thermo-set glue. It's basically a three-step processes: tape-making, which provides the foundation for the sails; gantry and molding, where sails take their final shape; and finishing, where fine details such as corner, edge and rigging bracing are added.
"No other sail maker in the world is doing 3D molded sails," says Minden General Manager Per Andersson. "It is a totally unique way of producing sails.
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"Other sailmakers use film to lock in materials – but the film is not doing anything," Andersson adds. "We got rid of the film, which is a lot of weight, and we utilize fibers and break out the filaments because that's a better utilization of the materials. And we literally are 30 years ahead of other sailmakers in how we shape our sail molds."
Every sail is custom-made depending on design, size, materials and finishings. The sails have no seams and can be several hundred feet tall.
"We are dominating the big boat market, from 100-foot to 280-foot super yachts," Andersson says. "The last America's Cup, we were the exclusive supplier, the same with the Volvo around the world race. We built all their sails."
North Sails has cornered about 50 percent of the global sail market, Andersson says, and the Minden facility accounts for about half of the company's annual revenue. North Sails has its technology headquarters at Milford, Conn. and its main headquarters at Newport, R.I. There's an additional manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka.
Dave Becker, North Sails' human resources and safety manager, says today's sails are like having a high-performance race engine above deck. The 3Di sails function more like soft composite vertical airplane wings, Becker adds.
Sails for premier boats such as those in the America's Cup are made in tandem with manufacturing partners such as yacht designers, sail designers, riggers, mast makers and others. North Sails has designers based all over the world.
"In today's market, you have to pull a team together," Andersson says. "Everything is put together as a package."
The shift in manufacturing processes wasn't without a host of challenges. North Sails created the entire production process from scratch, from the hardware that creates the filament-impregnated tape layers of the sails to the pneumatic/mechanical sail molds to the software that runs the hardware. There were no instruction manuals for the company's engineering or R&D staff to follow.
"Everything is a work in progress, from hardware to software," Andersson says. "We are writing new code and refining the code used out on the (manufacturing floor), as well as the hardware and lifters. It's an ongoing process. Upgrading is different from innovation – you have got to have smart people who know the processes and can take an idea and make it into an end product. You also have to have a company that's willing to back your ideas and take them to the next level."
The company certainly is not short on innovation, whether it comes from the white-collar R&D team or its blue-collar production workers. For instance, the manufacturing floor includes several rotating sewing pits – rather than having 20 workers manually move sails around during production, the company utilizes sewing turrets that move around the sails, an innovation brought about by the production staff.
"We utilize the collective knowledge of all our employees to make improvements," Andersson says.
Some of the company's Minden-based engineering staff attended University of Nevada, Reno, Andersson notes. And though Minden isn't exactly known as a haven for sailing aficionados, the company has an extensive training program in place to help talented workers learn the sailmaking business.
Most sailmaking facilities are near water where the customers also are located, Becker adds. Moving the company's premier sailmaking facility inland and landlocking it brought some unique challenges – primarily, finding capable employees. However, North Sails, which employs up to 130 people working three shifts around the clock in Northern Nevada, doesn't need experienced sailors to make sails. Rather, Becker says, the company searches for skill sets that can be transferred to the various stages of the sailmaking operations.
"We teach them everything they need to know as entry-level employees, and then we build them up in their training through different certifications and levels of training," Becker says.
While turnover is low at North Sails, new employees can be hard to find due to the "Tesla effect," Becker adds. Tesla's Gigafactory has siphoned off much of the available production help in the Carson City area. Potential employees in the Carson Valley have applied to companies in that area rather than working in Minden or Gardnerville.
North Sails has contracted with three of the four boats in the 2021 America's Cup, and it likely will fly its products on other premier sailing events in the future.
"If you want to win a sailing race, you get a North Sails 3Di sail," Becker says.