Here’s another exclusive from the ‘Ask Ullman’ series, this time with insights from Brad Stephens, Ullman Sails’ new Head of Technical Development, who talks about innovation in sailmaking and what’s next on the horizons for sails. Brad, a Sydney-based sail designer and sailmaker, has some serious credentials under his belt, including 30 years as a central figure in the development and optimization of D4® membrane technology and extensive experience as a technical expert and regional agent for sail and rig design software leader, SMAR Azure Ltd.
Q: Where do you think the next innovations in sailmaking will be? How can sails be made to hold their designed shape longer, yet be lighter and also more durable?
A: Shape holding, weight and durability form a series of constraints where it is hard to improve one characteristic without affecting another. Boat owners today see the trade-offs whenever they purchase sails. When a sailmaker offers a product with increased durability for club racing, we see that the boat takes a slight weight penalty. If the owner wants a lighter sail, they will find reduced durability. New innovations are being directed to improving each and all of these three constraints, but ultimately I think the trade-offs will always exist.
As to specifically what the next innovation in sailmaking will be, you will have to wait and see. Part of my role at Ullman Sails will be to join their ongoing efforts to identify and investigate innovation possibilities, help determine which opportunities show the most potential, and hopefully move to implement and test the best.
Q: What was the culture and environment that led to the development of the D4® membrane? When did you know you were developing something truly unique?
A: For various reasons Australia did not win the Kenwood Cup, held in Hawaii, in 1994. But one thing was clear – North Sails with 3DL had found a way to differentiate themselves from every other sailmaker. Whilst other sailmakers doubted their ability to compete against the new product, we took it as a challenge.
Looking back we were in a rather unique position to develop D4®. The design software that I had written in combination with previously undertaken design developments offered great insight into what would be meaningful in creating a new product. That, and the fact that particular patents of Peter Conrad were not registered in Australia, reduced the possibility of infringing existing intellectual property and gave us an initial market. Ultimately Bob Fraser’s skilled management of the business and our partners’ willingness to fund the project made the difference.
When I look around now and consider the number of sail membrane manufacturers using a similar approach to D4®, it is hard to see the initial uniqueness of D4®. In truth when we started none of the required machinery or software existed and we had to develop all that in order to get sails to the water.
Q: What mentality should boat owners take towards advances in sailmaking technology? Should they be holding their breath in anticipation? If something new is offered should they wait until after it’s been tested?
A: Boat owners should be excited about developments in sailmaking technology, but difficulties do arise when the application limits of new products are not well understood. Sailors should look out for the inappropriate use of the “next big thing”.
In sailmaking, just as in other fields of technical endeavor, new product development does not happen overnight.
There may be three to five years of R&D, proto-typing and testing prior to product release. By the time new sailmaking technology has hit the market a responsible sailmaker will have conducted a significant program of tests. This includes a sufficient quantity of both laboratory and real-world trials across a range of conditions. The trials provide meaningful feedback that is studied and incorporated into the product as it is refined until the product is finally ready for the market.
If you have a question for Brad or any other sail experts over at Ullman Sails about anything from sail design and construction to sail handling and tactics, send them to me and I will choose the best to forward on! – ed.