Interview / North Sails Group chooses Vannes for its global R&D division

The North Sails sailmaker will open in Vannes a unique R&D centre for the whole group. Gautier Sergent, who will take responsibility for it, explains to BoatIndustry his objectives and philosophy, which can go beyond the sailing world

On October 1st, 2017, you will take over the management of the R&D pole of North Sails in Vannes. Can you tell us about the path that led you to this responsibility?

Gautier Sergeant: After engineering studies in France, I went on a final internship with North Sails in New Zealand in 1999. As the 2000 America's Cup dawned, the teams were very busy and I was able to help out a lot, which put me in the stirrup. I was hired at the sailmaker's while at the same time doing a Master's degree at the University of Auckland in the Yacht Research Unit. I then worked in CFD software development, and then I became a draftsman.

In 2010, I returned to France to work on Groupama's project for the Volvo Ocean Race. On this occasion, I met many of the sailors in the crew who also each had their own teams, such as Thomas Coville. We established good relations and I stayed in France to take care of the IMOCA and Ultimate projects.

In 2014, I took over the management of the 3D plants of the North Sails Group in Minden, USA and Sri Lanka. After 3 years, which we had set ourselves as a minimum for this position, we saw with the management that my profile and my expectations corresponded to the new R&D development project within the group. On October 1, 2017, I will therefore take over the management of the new R&D pole.

How has R&D at North Sails worked until now and why are you creating this R&D centre?

GS: Of course, R&D existed before the cluster. It is even one of the characteristics of North Sails, but until now it has been exploded in all the entities of the group. It was never the main project of the person in charge, which could slow down the process. Moreover, it was not always designed for all markets and information was scattered.

From now on, I will be in charge of structuring and coordinating North Sails' R&D efforts worldwide. Thanks to the R&D pole, we will be able to rationalize and make research efforts as efficient as possible. As a first step, I would like to provide an overview of North Sails' R&D projects and history. From there, we will be able to draw up a 5-year plan of attack and estimate staffing and budget requirements. The long-term objective would be to hire 3 to 4 people.

What are the main areas of R&D that you are considering?

GS: Even if the topics will be refined with the inventory of fixtures mentioned, several research themes are already envisaged. There will obviously be software development in CFD. We will also work on simplifying and integrating as much as possible, or even making sail finishes, such as webbing, disappear. We will also be thinking about integrating the mast and sail assembly, probably with Southern Spars, which is part of the same group as North Sails. Electronics and data acquisition are also a major issue to better understand the dynamic behaviour of sails and to take it into account in physical test protocols and laboratory simulation of sails.

We will also assist in product development, to enable 3Di to cover all types of sailing. With the Nordac 3Di, we took a step forward by using dacron. We are going to work to see the possibilities of marrying polyester fibres with aramid, dyneema or carbon, to get the best characteristics from each one.

What is the reason that led North Sails to choose France to set up its R&D centre?

GS: The French market is one of the least sensitive. The projects that can be found between Lorient, Port-La-Forêt and La Trinité are exciting and the French are not afraid to invest in technology.

On the other hand, with the research tax credit, it is possible to bring the cost of personnel down to the level of other countries. Among the R&D cluster's new recruits, there will surely be a person in charge of managing partnerships with universities, companies and thesis scholarships.

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