Automation software for sail construction

A sailmaker that needed flexibility on its production floor turned to Wonderware to help ensure its custom built sails are built to the right specification.

Minden, Nevada is home to the 3DL (three-dimensional laminates) brand sail-making operations of North Sails, a leader in high performance sails for racing and cruising.

Today’s 3DL sails are continuous Mylar film membranes with load bearing fibres that are applied in a laminate that precisely matches the wind loads projected in computer-aided sail designs.

The only issue with 3DL production is making sure that each custom-built sail is manufactured using the exact specs designed for it. This requires flexibility on the plant floor to be able to change from one set of sail design specs to another quickly and easily – but with a high level of repeatability in the production process, to maintain 3DL quality.

To achieve this rare combination of expertise, North Sails deploys FactorySuite automation software, from Wonderware, as an important element in the successful construction of the sails.

InTouch runs a large, complex and sophisticated set of scripting to calculate and download manufacturing instructions for each sail to the Siemens Simatic 416 TDC programmable logic controller (PLC) that controls each of the six gigantic moulds.

The instructions that are fed from InTouch to the PLC control more than 200 actuators that articulate the three-dimensional shape of the sail on each of the six massive moulds.

Operators launch the lamination process using a Siemens TP37 touchscreen that is linked to the PC in Steinman’s office. All setup procedures are authorised by that PC, and once a program has been requested for download, the InTouch scripts calculate the entire file load and ship it to the PLC.

‘InTouch will check out the entire system status and turn the Start button red when everything is ready to run,’ Steinman said. ‘When they press that button, the mold automatically moves itself to the desired shape. It’s a computed move, so it moves as fast as it takes. The maximum is five minutes for the biggest mold we use.

InTouch also translates design data for exact placement of miles of structural fibre, in the form of custom yarns that are applied using a computeriser armature to ‘draw’ a fibre pattern on each sail that precisely matches anticipated wind loads on the sail during use.

North Sails management is now experimenting with the IndustrialSQL Server component of Wonderware’s FactorySuite to gather complete details on every sail that is made, for the purpose of studying actual labour and materials costs so that they can bring down the high cost.

‘We want to start logging every single task involved, from the push of a button to the laying of yarn, so that we know how long it took to build the sail and therefore how much our production costs were,’ Steinman said.

‘We know this will be a tremendous amount of data we’ll be collecting, and IndustrialSQL Server is the only way we can collect it in real time at high bandwidth and have it available for easy querying and investigation. It’s our hope that we’ll then be able to fine tune our systems so that we can bring these products down to a more affordable cost for the average sailor.’

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