Island time: a look at the high-tech manufacturing process changing everything from art to architecture

Composite manufacturing is an integral part of New Zealand’s globally renowned boat building industry. But, as Michael Barrett writes, these technological processes are also finding other applications in architecture, infrastructure, entertainment, transport and even art. Now 21 high-tech, ice-white ‘islands’ milled and routed by Warkworth-based Core Builders Composites are getting some airtime in Auckland’s new Objectspace Gallery.

Art galleries, architecture and the America’s Cup may not seem like the most obvious of combinations. But there is a common denominator: Core Builders Composites, a company based in an old print warehouse in Warkworth.

The company, which helped build Oracle Team USA America’s Cup yachts, as well as those for Softbank Team Japan, parts of the Artemis and Groupama Team France boats and also parts for Team New Zealand, is inextricably linked with the precise fabrication required for this new generation of yachts. But the skill of composite manufacturing is increasingly applicable to other industries.

Susan Lake, Core’s structural engineer, says the potential for digital manufacturing techniques integrated with Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine milling is potentially endless. So far, the range of work runs from entertainment (giant disco ball; two-metre-tall teddy bear for movie industry) through to infrastructure (railway overbridge; huge water-pipe junctions; Makani M600 wind-energy generator; milking platforms) and vehicles of various modes (milling tools for campervan and superyacht manufacturing; a full-size replica of a MIG29 jet used as a flight simulator; a solar car for Sunswift, which took part in 2015’s Global Solar Challenge across Australia; and, as rumour has it, “flying cars” for Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero).

And then there’s architecture. Its first significant architecture project was the roof structure of Rore Kāhu, the Marsden Cross Interpretive Centre, up north at Rangihoua Heritage Park in the Bay of Islands, which was designed by Cheshire Architects. Lake says the project manager came to Core with a drawing just as the America’s Cup was winding down in 2014.

“He asked us if we could build the structure and transport it. We happened to have a 40m-long AC72 wing sail leaving that day, so were able to demonstrate our experience with that level of scale. For us, the exciting aspect of this project is utilising all of the digital manufacturing techniques that we had honed over the previous four years to efficiently produce something completely unique that was entirely outside the marine industry. As there was a clear path from concept to structural design to fabrication to installation, we saw this project as a natural extension of our work.”

Last year, the company used a series of similar processes to mill and manufacture 21 ice-white islands for Future Islands, New Zealand’s exhibition at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Like an America’s Cup yacht, a ‘future island’ is lightweight, strong and easily transportable. The islands have cores of either honeycomb foam, milled with a CNC router, or Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is then covered with a fibreglass skin and finished with Resene paint. The thinner islands are made of infused hemp, while a large black island covered with a carbon-fibre skin recycled from a Boeing 787 for added strength, doubles as exhibition seating.

To manufacture the islands, Core used its 5-axis CNC milling machine, ‘The Poseidon’, which is an 18m long, 6m wide, 3m tall machine that can slice through composites, wood, graphite and non-ferrous metals with a degree of accuracy to 0.2mm.

The ‘floating’ islands that provide the platform for 55 building models (including the Marsden Cross Interpretive Centre) and associated audiovisual projects have now returned to New Zealand and the free exhibition will run at Objectspace in Auckland (28 July – 17 September) and the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington (13 October – 22 December).

For more information on the exhibition, head to

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