Uwe Beckmeyer is a child of the coast and a dyed-in-the-wool politician. As Parliamentary Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Economics (BMWi), the man from Bremerhaven represents the interests of the maritime industry in Berlin. In an exclusive interview with German Dry Docks magazine, the Maritime Coordinator of the Federal Government outlines the future priorities in federal politics for shipbuilding and shipping.
Sometimes it seems as if federal politics is turning its back on the coast. What importance does the maritime economy really have in Berlin?
With about 400,000 employees and a sales volume of more than 54 billion euros, the maritime sector is one of the most important industries in Germany. Securing this strongly competitive position requires ongoing efforts to develop new technologies. We help companies do so. That is why we are planning to interlink the two federal maritime programmes more closely; our goal is to provide support along the entire value chain. The new programme guidelines are scheduled to apply from 2018 onwards.
While shipbuilding is in a serious crisis worldwide, German shipyards have found an adequate niche. How can the currently good position be sustainably secured?
New technologies must be affordable and profitable. Application-oriented research and faster transfer of experiences gained in practice can contribute to this. We are encouraging this with new programme priorities: for example, by focusing on “innovative gas drives” in energy research and on the construction and conversion of ships with LNG propulsion in the transport sector. Our companies have great expertise here which we want to support. The range of innovative technologies in the maritime sector is immense – especially in comparison with other industries. It ranges from modern propulsion technologies in shipbuilding, to automated production chains and “Industry 4.0” applications, to the highly dynamic marine technologies with offshore oil & gas, arctic technologies or the construction and operation of offshore wind turbines.
Innovations need a market. How can such markets be developed? Are there any government incentives?
With a series of targeted support programmes for the development of new technologies, we are helping companies face this challenge. The spectrum of topics ranges from alternative fuels to infrastructure to engine technology – funding volume: 14.7 million euros. We are also supporting shipbuilding with LNG propulsion and an electro-powered passenger boat. Funding for this amounts to a total of 2.3 million euros. For the future, however, we have to think ahead. That is why our company also supports the development of innovative fuels such as methanol, hydrogen and hybrid drives. This is not only good for the environment, but will also give our company a market advantage against international competition. With the “Innovative Shipbuilding Ensures Competitive Jobs” programme, we support innovations that are used in the European shipbuilding for the first time. A look at the projects being funded shows a clear focus on environmentally friendly drive systems and efficient production processes. We incidentally have the most impact by consistently promoting technologies that serve the following objectives: cost reduction, greater adherence to schedules, lower development risks, targeted extension of maritime capabilities to new market segments, resource conservation and higher environmental and climate compatibility.
Shipbuilding is increasingly about the right products and efficient production. Will there be funding opportunities for improving processes and methods in shipyards?
Efficient production processes are an important competitive factor. German shipbuilding is characterised by single-unit or small series production; elaborate manual work is still the rule here. The goal must be to further streamline production processes and continuously improve product quality. Efficient logistics and welding processes, as well as modular production methods, are showing potential. The Federal Ministry of Economy is supporting companies with the innovation programme, allowing even small shipyards to finance the necessary development investments.
Shipbuilding is not a coastal issue alone; it also directly impacts the southern German states. How willing are they to provide the appropriate funding and not simply leave everything up to the federal government?
A substantial part of maritime added value is created in Germany’s coastal states. Many suppliers and service companies, however, are also located in southern Germany. Alongside the classic federal maritime programmes, the maritime industry also benefits from cross-sector funding activities by the federal states such as project funding or infrastructure measures. It is clear that strengthening the maritime economy is a task for society as a whole.
At the Maritime Conference in Bremerhaven last October, you called for the maritime industry to focus more on future markets. Which future markets are you referring to?
Our current research priorities reflect four general trends: “Green shipping” will continue to gain in importance. The second future market is closely linked with the issue of climate and environmental protection: the construction and operation of offshore wind turbines, which requires extensive maritime expertise. The development of autonomous underwater systems is thus another growth market. If use of the oceans increases, we also need to develop maritime safety technologies – another important future market.
Is there already a concrete plan with numbers, contents and periods for the funding programmes?
The federal budget for innovation in shipbuilding has been increased to 25 million euros for 2016. That’s 7.5 million euros more than last year. In the upcoming budget discussions, the Ministry of Economy aims to stabilise programme funding at the current level.
There was also talk of “greater use of synergies with other sectors” at the Maritime Conference. Which sectors and which technologies are being referred to?
Synergies with other sectors can be an important competitive advantage for German industry. That is why the BMWi specifically promotes cross-sector collaborations, for example with a new focus on “innovative gas drives” in energy research and the close collaboration with the aerospace industry in the field of maritime safety. Further cooperation opportunities are offered by new development trends in production, the accompanying materials technology or the topic of big data.