Some key facts: Since the Lehman Bros. collapse ten years ago the global shipbuilding industry has been going through an extremely volatile period. Demand for new ships has dropped dramatically, especially during the last few years. While in 2013 as many as 3,375 vessels were ordered worldwide, that number had declined to a mere 798 by 2016, the lowest level in three decades. The worldwide orderbook is shrinking rapidly; by the end of 2016 it had dropped to less than 50 per cent of the all-time high it had reached in 2008. Germany was severely affected by the 2007 crisis, as well. Orders for container ships, until then the most important market segment, nearly dried up. By focussing on highly complex niche markets such as passenger ships, government vessels, and naval vessels, the industry prepared the ground for today’s success. Yards primarily serving these customers weren’t short of work last year. The national orderbook has been growing for six years without interruption.
Sounding the alarm bells
Nevertheless, VSM has every reason to set the alarm bells ringing. To many VSM members this trend brought little or no benefit: The maritime value chain, one of the most important strengths of Germany as an industrial nation, depends on orders from the world market to ensure adequate utilisation of its production centres and maintain a high level of productivity. Therefore the global market recession is severely impacting on many component, system and plant manufacturers. The situation is getting even more precarious now that the weak economic development is forcing the freight transport markets to adapt to significantly lower growth rates. At the same time, a trend towards protectionist trade policies is pushing local content and government subsidies to unprecedented levels, further distorting the markets. The German maritime sector should therefore be prepared for further challenges in the years to come.
Technology and innovation
The ability to offer outstanding technical solutions at attractive prices has always been a means to secure business success. But today the industry is wondering whether this will suffice in a future where competitors operating within a framework of a concerted industrial policy (such as “Made in China 2025”) can rely on an generous subsidies unknown in our part of the world. VSM neither believes in stopping China’s policies nor in trying to emulate them as realistic options. China isn’t Germany – and vice versa. “However, what we have to do is observe the general economic conditions very closely and respond with the means available to us,” said VSM President Harald Fassmer, Managing Director of Fassmer Werft GmbH, at the press conference. “From our point of view this means that our best bet is superior technology. But offering superior technology is not some kind of natural privilege of Germany. Rather, the factors that makes the difference are excellent cooperation and our innovative impetus. Both need an appropriate structural framework to unfold – within companies and beyond.” Two years ago VSM therefore proposed to launch an innovation initiative, which has since made significant progress in several areas. Another great achievement, the Maritime Agenda 2025, has sent a strong signal, as well. Further new, prominent topics have been added, such as Digitalisation and the Maritime Energy Turnaround. “But if we really want to move ahead full steam on these topics we must redouble our efforts, and so does the government. Joint position papers are a good thing, but joining forces to tackle challenges is even better,” said VSM President Fassmer.
Working in a fascinating industry, the VSM member companies are well positioned in the maritime market and do by no means put all their hopes in government actions. Quite the contrary: They know that securing their future is primarily their own responsibility. “As an industry association we want to foster cooperation and break new ground together wherever we see an opportunity to do so,” said VSM Managing Director Dr Reinhard Lüken with emphasis. “VSM initiatives such as the German Maritime Export Initiative (GeMaX), the VSM Akademie and our proposal to establish a German Maritime Centre, but also the numerous activities undertaken by the VSM working groups are examples that confirm our commitment.”