Aeronaut Automation

Automated Cutting Systems & Software

Patterning and Formfinding Software

Aeronaut staff are often asked for information on software for the design and patterning of tension membrane, shade sail and lightweight structures, so we've posted some links on this page to well known design software for fabric stuctures.

Scottsdale Innovation Centre Builder:       USA-Shade and Fabric Structures, Dallas, Texas Architect:    FTL Studios, NYC Engineer:    Wade Consulting Group, Brisbane, Australia Fabricator:   Atkins Software:    NDN Membrane

Before getting into details, lets say from the outset two things:

  • One, that Aeronaut's Tangent nesting software can read, nest and cut any properly formatted output file from this patterning software.
  • Two, that Aeronaut has no hands-on experience with the high-end software mentioned below and this list is provided as a resource to the industry.

In the fabrication of tension membrane and lightweight fabric structures, there are many different approaches to developing patterns. For proper tension membrane structures, specialised form-finding software is normally essential.

Where structures are not under great tension, such as in portable tents and marquees, more conventional CAD software can be used for design. And though many programs can flatten 3D shapes into 2D, they dont always add the essential or time-saving details such panel numbers, strike-up marks, seam allowances and other fabricator's markings.

Broadly speaking, there are three divisions to this business:

  • Large commercial structures such as stadiums, airports, shopping centres and other public areas. Medium sized structures in public areas such as shops, clubs, cafes. Smaller domestic installations and shade sails, portable structures such as marquees, tents and umbrellas. At the top end of these industries, where large commercial or civic constructions are involved, designs and patterns are often done for fabricators by the civil and structural engineers who do the building and metalwork. Apart from anything else, the public liability implications of structures of this size make correct and conservative design essential.
  • With the medium sized category, there are many fabricators who have in-house design and engineering expertise and can manage these projects completely. In some cases, the form-finding or design software offers parametrics or primitive models which can be reshaped to suit the job requirements.
  • At the simplest end of the list, a lot of generic CAD software can be used. With the addition of plug-in tools for performing tasks like designing shade sails, adding seam allowances, splitting panels and adding strike-up marks, this may be all a fabricator needs in-house.

What follows is a list of links to industry software which spans most of these categories when driven by the right CAD jockey.

A useful resource for this industry is Tensinet.

TensiNet is a multi-disciplinary association for all parties interested in tensioned membrane construction. The website contains a Project Database as well as articles and links to manufacturers, fabricators, material producers, coaters, weavers, architecture and engineering offices, distributors of machinery, steelwork and ropes, software companies, academic and research institutes.

NDN Software.

NDN is a comprehensive FEM software package developed for the Tensile Membrane Engineering Professional. NDN has all the tools for the design and optimisation of membrane and steel structural systems. It is a single package that contains model building, analysis, post processing, member sizing, and patterning. NDN claims to be the most comprehensive software available in the world for the Tensile Membrane industry.

Arizona University Pavilion modelled in NDN Software

NDN is easy to learn, has a lightning fast matrix solver and video game style graphics that are second to none. The program automatically loads structures, automatically sizes the steel members and automatically produces the patterns to any desired fabric width.NDN uses a Windows style user interface so that it looks familiar to new users and is easy to learn. NDN is completely mouse driven and has keyboard short cuts for all commands. Please contact Aeronaut if you want to know more about NDN software.


M-Panel. MPanel software incorporates a set of design tools into a user friendly interface to assist tensile fabric structure designers. MPanel works inside AutoCAD or Rhinoceros as a floating tool bar, and manipulates your CAD drawing from the initial relaxation of a mesh to the final production panels to send to your plotter or cutter.

MPanel was developed to assist tensile fabric structure designers, but works equally well on other projects, such as tents, awnings, exhibition stands, and inflatable structures.

Easy. Easy is a fully comprehensive suite of software modules for the complete design of lightweight structures. The design of free shapes, static analysis and cutting pattern calculation for textile membranes and ETFE foils are supported in the Easy system.

Patterner. Patterner for Windows is a low-cost and powerful collection of tools to work with 3d surface meshes. It will allow you to design and produce production drawings of 3d surfaces.

Patterner is sold primarily for the design and manufacture of tents and membrane / fabric structures. However, the powerful manipulation and drawing creation tools provided make it useful for anyone building complex 3d forms from sheet materials. The developer of Patterner, Bruno Postle, has some useful links on his web page, including a list of manufacturers, many of whom are Aeronaut customers.

Formfinder. Formfinder is a design software that is as easy to operate as a sheet of paper and a pencil. Formfinder assists architects and project planners in the design, planning and cost-effectiveness assessment for the implementation of form-active structures.

Form-active structures are made of flexible non-rigid materials ranging from, for instance, a simple awning to textile faades and the roofing over sports stadiums.

TouchCAD. TouchCAD - TouchCAD 3.0 is a combined 3D modeling and unfolding program focusing on the ability to generate complex 3D shapes and converting them into physically buildable models. See below for more information about TouchCAD.

We have a number of customers who use TouchCAD for doing medium level work.

ForTen Forten Tensile Structure design, analysis and manufacturing system.

For smaller domestic and commercial projects, where a fabricator wants to design, pattern and fabricate the whole construction in-house, Aeronaut can offer a simple software solution for the entire design, patterning, nesting and cutting process.

Our CAD software of choice for most simple patterning is Vectorworks.Vectorworksis an easy to use, cross platform 2D/3D CAD program costing about $2100. Vectorworks is an excellent tool for the design and engineering of membrane structures. The plan, elevation and design of the structure can be modelled, as well as the steelwork and associated fittings. Vectorworks has a good macro language, attached spreadsheets and bills of materials etc for calculating materials and costs.

Simple marquee structure in Vectoworks

This simple marquee design can be very easily done in a 2D/3D CAD program like vectorworks. The roof section can be easily modelled and flattened or unfolded to develop a pattern. In fact, the basic design of all the patterns for this type of structure can be done in about 5 minutes.

Similar techniques to the ones used to develop the roof shape can also be used to develop multi-sided shapes for umbrellas and outdoor shades.

Aeronaut has tutorial movies and technical notes on patterning many fabric products and lightweight structures.  Contact Aeronaut if you would like a copy of any of these.

It is possible to buy stand-alone software intended for things like marquee and umbrella design, but the cost of these programs is very close to the cost of a real CAD program. With the stand-alone software, you get a fraction of the power and capability of proper CAD software and a 100th of the capabilities. It doesn't really seem a smart way to go! You are better off putting a few more hours into learning CAD patterning.

The Vectorworks Macro language has allowed Aeronaut to write many plug-in tools specifically for people working with fabric. These tools allow the rapid drawing of ground plans, developing shade sails, adding seams, curve fairing, drawing optimisation, panel splitting and more

Vectorworks will read and write to most industry standard file formats such as DXF/DWG, IGES etc. for compatibility with other software.

TouchCAD Conical

A companion program, TouchCAD allows modelling of full 3D membrane shapes consisting of multi-part nurbs skins which can be accurately fitted to your rigid structural elements.

TouchCAD has been designed from the start as a flattening program. This makes it ideal for developing designs which are to be made from sheet or roll materials. TouchCAD flattens the surface, splits it into panels and add seam allowances, panel numbers, node numbers, check marks etc. Where a fabric is stretchy, such as shade mesh, TouchCAD allows the user to run single panels across surfaces. Unlike many programs, the flat patterns developed by TouchCAD are accurate on edge lengths which means adjoining panels can be correctly joined together.

Patterns ready for plotting and cutting can be exported directly from TouchCAD to Tangent. Further splitting of panels may be done in Tangent, or patterns exported to Vectorworks to add details for metalwork and fixings.

Cats Touring Tent

TouchCAD has been used to design structures from simple shades to enormous marquees and circus tents. Structures can be exported as DXF or IGES models for wind loading and stress analysis by structural engineers.

The second best feature of TouchCAD is perhaps is price under $1500. This means a very powerful 2D/3D CAD modelling system can be bought for less than $4,000 which gives fabricators an extremely cost effective solution to in-house membrane design. The best features of both programs are their ease of use Both programs redefine the term User Friendly. You dont have to be an engineer to use them.

If you know of other good software please contact Aeronaut and well add it to the list.