In the space of just a few years, the maritime city of Bremerhaven has developed into a service centre for the seafaring and shipbuilding industry, offering everything from repairs and maintenance to retrofitting and major structural alterations. At the centre of it all is the company German Dry Docks, whose managing director, Guido Försterling, has already heralded the era of ‘seafaring 4.0’.
Barring the odd exception over the years, there has never been a simple or easy time in the shipbuilding industry. For the most part, the German shipyards have escaped the global crisis that prevails in the sector – yet for Guido Försterling, this is no reason to sit back and relax. “We can’t wait for the ships to come to us any longer,” says the managing director of German Dry Docks (GDD), a ship repair company based in Bremerhaven. “It’s up to us to go to where the ships are.” In other words, the ship doesn’t come to the shipyard – the shipyard comes to the ship.
This means that teams of experts are stationed in Bremerhaven 24/7, ready to be deployed at any moment on ships across the globe. All maintenance and repair work that can take place on the water is carried out there, whether it involves fixing damage to the hull, overhauling motors or swapping out generators. “Mobile deployment is one of the mainstays of our business,” says Försterling.
Operations like these have become possible due to the shipbuilding sector’s adoption of principles from ‘Industry 4.0’, the process of digital transformation currently taking place in manufacturing. “We see an opportunity in digitalisation,” explains Försterling. He has put a great deal of effort and expense into adapting data processing and communications technologies for the seafaring industry that have long since been regarded on land as the driving force of the fourth industrial revolution. He calls his project ‘German Dry Docks 4.0’, and is convinced that the concept will come to define the shipbuilding industry in the next 10 to 15 years.
Within just a few years, the 41-year-old has transformed the maritime city of Bremerhaven into one of the leading locations for repair, maintenance, and retrofitting of ships with modern environmental technologies, as well as major structural renovation work. The GDD Group is confident that it is well-placed to carry out operations on the Weser and Elbe rivers. Not only does it have docks of its own at the Kaiserhafen in northern Bremerhaven, but it also makes use of those of its partner company Bredo, which has facilities at the Fischereihafen to the south and in the nearby town of Cuxhaven. Furthermore, GDD has secured its first international site through the acquisition of Rotterdam Ship Repair.
Besides the repairs and maintenance carried out in everyday dock operations, GDD has created a key mainstay for itself in the technical retrofitting of ships. Stricter international environmental regulations have meant that ship owners have had to invest in exhaust gas purification and the treatment of ballast water, and Försterling has wasted no time in adapting his business to cater for these trends. The company doesn’t just want to provide the best service from a technical point of view, however. “We also consider the business side and develop bespoke, efficient solutions,” insists Försterling. GDD’s latest project seems to confirm this strategy, as it has received a commission from the Wessels shipping company to retrofit a container ship so that it can be fuelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG). This conversion work is the first of its kind in the world.
LNG is regarded as a fuel of the future, since it reduces the pollutant emissions of ships by up to 99 per cent. The retrofitting of the WES Amelie is financially supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport. The feeder ship is one of 23 cargo vessels that are almost identical in structure, meaning that the expertise gained from the project could be directly implemented elsewhere. The project presents a technical challenge, as a complex system has to be integrated into an existing ship for it to be able to run on LNG fuel.
The project serves as an example of how Bremerhaven’s shipbuilding industry is undergoing transformation. The SSW 1000 on which the WES Amelie was based was originally developed in Bremerhaven. In its day, the SSW 1000 was considered the most efficient ship within its class. New builds of this kind are no longer manufactured in Germany, but as one of the leading specialists in retrofitting, repair and conversion, GDD is now ensuring that Bremerhaven’s shipbuilding tradition is kept alive.
Försterling points out that ship repair is very much a price-driven business: “Shipyards in low-cost countries are clearly at an advantage in this regard.” It is therefore critical for GDD to provide an optimal level of service in order to remain internationally competitive. He can’t reduce his employees’ hourly rates, so the work has to be so well prepared in advance that it can be finished seamlessly in the shortest amount of time.
For years now, GDD has operated by the principle that, for every order, the customer always has a single point of contact with whom to discuss everything from the initial outlines of the project to the billing for its completion. This experience is now set to stand the business in good stead: “In upcoming international projects, it is primarily Bremerhaven that will take on the role of coordinator across the multiple locations,” explains Försterling. He is convinced that by combining the technical expertise of his workforce with a successful project management system, German Dry Docks will be able to resist the pricing pressure from low-cost suppliers when competing in international markets. “There are good prospects in combining optimum price with optimum quality.”
Conceptually, Försterling is already one step ahead. “The shipping industry hasn’t undergone a technical revolution in decades,” he notes. Transformations such as the switch from steam engines to internal combustion engines occurred over long periods of time. Now, though, serious changes are on the horizon: “In just a few years, we will have ships that sail by themselves, for example.” Försterling therefore feels it is necessary to reorient the focus of Bremerhaven as a location for shipbuilding and repair, and not just due to the current situation in the industry. “If we want to stay on the market in the long term, we have to set a new course in good time.”
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