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The D4 story: one of the most significant technologies in sailmaking is now owned by a German company but it was developed here and generates export income for Australia.

The crews of the 60 foot multihulls Groupama 2, Geant and Banque Populaire, the Chinese America's Cup challenger and Vendee Globe winning single-handed sailor Vincent Riou with PRB are among many sailors around the world who rely on sail membranes manufactured by German textiles company Dimension-Polyant.

More specifically, they rely on Australian developed technology Although the D4 membrane technology is now owned by Dimension-Polyant, it was developed in Australia by two Cruising Yacht Club of Australia members and much of the production is still carried out here.

The development of the D4 sail technology has its origins in the early 1970s when Bob Fraser started his own sailmaking business in Sydney. In 1975 Fraser was joined by Brad Stephens who soon became Fraser Sails main sail designer.

Fraser and Stephens focused on producing sails that were light but rugged enough for Australian offshore conditions, Over the years, they built up a loyal following.

In the early 1980s, when the use of computers in sail design was fairly limited and off the shelf design packages did not exist Stephens wrote a number of design programs that allowed for the use of virtual "moulds" to design their sails. This programming expertise, together with the practical sailmaking knowledge, was to later prove fundamental in the development of D4. By 1986 Fraser Sails had established franchises in various parts of Australia as well as in California, Newport, Rhode Island and in Japan.

In 1994 all members of the Australian Kanwood Cup team In Hawaii used Fraser Sails. But about the same time the company's biggest challenge emerged; North Sails 3DL "moulded" sails.

Bob Fraser remembers that many sailmakers at the time doubted their ability to compete with the new product but he felt differently.

He accepted that Norths had made a significant advance but says: "We weren't about to roll over. We took it as a challenge."

It was a very strong challenge. He remembers that in the 1995 Admiral's Cup most of the boats had Norths 3DL sails.

Fraser and Stephens decided they needed to come up with an alternative product that had different strengths.

They agreed with Norths that laying stretch resistant yarns directly on to film and then laminating another layer on top was the best way to make light strong sails but were unconvinced that Norths had adopted the best system to do this. They had doubts about the efficiency of producing sails on a flexible mould and compressing them applying lamination pressure solely by vacuum bagging. They also wondered about the cost effectiveness of the process.

But Norths had found "a means to differentiate themselves," says Fraser.

He and Stephens decided to devise their own equally recognisable method of creating reinforced laminated sails to individual specifications.

By the beginning of 1996 Fraser Sails had decided on their production method. Fraser and Stephens knew that the components (films, adhesive and yarns) had to be held in close contact for best lamination and that pressures approaching those used in conventional sailcloth lamination could not be applied over a flexible mould. So, they decided, lamination had to occur on a flat surface for the required pressure to be applied. This implied that the sail would have to be shaped by a number of horizontal slices. Their experience. however, suggested that only a limited number of slices or separate sections would be required to accurately control the three dimensional shape of the sail.

Putting this into practice was another matter. Again, they drew on their technical and practical experience to modify an existing sailcloth plotter/cutter for their first yarn laying tests.

They also had to develop their own wide area lamination system. Research and development, which they financed entirely from the business, was carried out at Fraser Sails' Rushcutters Bay premises and in a factory in Hornsby, Sydney. Getting the equipment to work properly took time but eventually they were confident enough to commit to setting up a sailloft and membrane production facility at Somersby north of Sydney.

Once the D4 membrane product was proven, Fraser Sails made it available to other sailmakers. Hood Sailmakers, Sydney, was one of the first independent sailmakers to use the product and others soon others followed.

In 1998, Quest was selected to compete in the Kenwood Cup in Hawaii. She was the only member of the Australian team with D4 sails. Quest performed well in an Australian team which came second in the series to New Zealand, won the Molokai race and was second overall on the individual pointscore. That series introduced D4 sails to US sailors.

In 1999, Marblehead, Massachusetts, sailmaker Robbie Doyle, recognising the benefits of D4, held discussions with Fraser which culminated in two separate agreements. Fraser Sails commenced trading as Doyle Fraser Sails and Doyle Sailmakers was granted a non-exclusive agreement providing access to D4.

After Quest, D4 sails were used in Australia on many leading Australian yachts including the 35 ft Robert Hick designed Midnight Rambler which survived the disastrous 1998 storm to win that year's Hobart Race and Nicorette which won line honours in 2000.

Today, D4 is used by many independent sailmakers in building sails to their own designs. Through a system developed by Dimension-Polyant, they are able to get online quotes for sail membranes to be produced to their specifications. The membranes are delivered either bonded and requiring only final finishing or for the sailmaker to join and finish.

In 2004, Fraser Sails sold the D4 technology to Dimension-Polyant in a multi million dollar deal. At the same time, to meet contractual obligations and avoid conflicts of interest, Fraser and Stephens sold their interests in Doyle Fraser Sailmakers and joined Dimension Polyant.

As part of the technology transfer, they helped set up a new D4 plant in Germany with its first yarn laying and laminating equipment sourced from Australia.

The German plant now produces D4 mainly for Europe while the Australian plant continues to manufacture a large part of the total world production.

Bob Fraser has now left the business but Brad Stephens remains as managing director of Dimension Polyant Membranes Pty Ltd.

For further information contact 02 4340 5083

Photography Andrea Francolini
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Title Annotation:Sails Technology; Dimension-Polyant
Author:Herbert, Adrian
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:1025
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