100th anniversary of Gebrüder Friedrich Werft in Kiel

100 years of being future-proof!

The year 2021 was a special one for Gebrüder Friedrich Schiffswert (the ‘Friedrich Brothers’ Shipyard’). It has been 100 years since the shipyard was established by the brothers Wilhelm and Johann Friedrich. We spoke with owner and Managing Director Kathrin Birr about the past and the future. Be it World War II, German reunification or structural crises in shipbuilding, the company has weathered quite a number of storms.

WTSH-Online editorial team: Looking back, what have been major challenges for you and your company?  

Katrin Birr: The Second World War had extremely large repercussions, especially because of our location here in Kiel. For us, German reunification was also quite a challenge, as many contracts suddenly started being awarded to shipyards in the former East Germany, even ones from the Navy for example. We felt tangible impacts from this. The structural crises in shipbuilding only began affecting us during their second wave, with the major shipyards being hit first. However, we are currently feeling the pressure that is weighing down on the industry, and most of all the challenge of re-envisioning transport. 

WTSH-Online editorial team: How have you managed crises like these in the past?

Katrin Birr: It is basically in our DNA to confront new things. We do not work directly on building new ships, but rather on repairing and maintaining them. Even in these areas, we can clearly see the transformation in shipbuilding. Spare parts are unavailable for many older ships, while new ships present us with completely different technologies. That means we have always been forced to adapt, develop ideas and not rely solely on the things we already have. We have always needed to look at where the winds are blowing and foresee developments. This is what I think our company’s greatest strength is. We always think about what we can do next. A business needs to have as broad a basis as possible. For instance, we founded our subsidiary Gebrüder Friedrich Elektrotechnik (‘Friedrich Brothers’ Electrical Technology’) in 1993 and integrated a metalworking business into our company in 2016.  

WTSH-Online editorial team: And now? Many companies are saying that digital transformation, energy demands and labour shortages are major challenges. Do they also affect Gebrüder Friedrich Werft or are you facing different ones? 

Katrin Birr: There is a very clear labour shortage. It takes a great deal of effort to find staff and especially apprentices and trainees for our classic shipyard operations. And not only there either, as it is incredibly difficult to get specialists in IT. Digital transformation is also a large challenge, while documentation requirements are continually growing, too. Sustainability is a big issue for us. Previously, ships were not a big part of the dialogue surrounding new forms of transport. However, there is a need to look at ship engine systems from an environmental perspective. What we are facing most of all is questions. There has not yet been a decision in the industry about the solution it will be. For example, we are talking about electric engines, synthetic fuels, LNG and fuel cells. As a company, this demands that we think in all directions at the moment and build ourselves a basis that is as broad as possible. 

WTSH-Online editorial team: What does this basis consist of? 

Katrin Birr: We have recently invested large amounts in the infrastructure at our site so that we can recharge ships with electric engines at our shipyard. This required an immense effort and was a major challenge, including financially. After all, it involves more than just a simple power outlet. We are also actively involved in projects that ensure we keep up with the times. There is a lot happening with regard to new forms of transport, especially here in our region. For instance, there is the CAPTN initiative which aims to establish an integrated, urban mobility chain made up of clean, autonomous vehicles for public transport on water and on land with water–land interchanges. Just recently we won a contract involving the construction of autonomous ships. 

WTSH-Online editorial team: All of that sounds very exciting. What do you think an SME needs in order to stay future-proof? Not just in the next few years, but over the long term. 

Katrin Birr: Employees! They are truly very important. At Gebrüder Friedrich Werft, we know that we are simply nothing without our inspirational and motivated staff. That is why we do not adapt our employees to an existing position, but rather – if we are uncertain – we adapt the position perfectly for an applicant that we want to have on our team. At our company we do not work in fixed department structures anyway. Instead, we work based on projects, which gives us flexibility. This flexibility is a further building block for a company that enjoys long-term success. What is also important is to launch into things. You need to get out there and get started, instead of just waiting. Many of the benefits only come once the journey has started. Sometimes, you might have to adjust your goal somewhat if you notice that a project is developing in a different direction. 

WTSH-Online editorial team: What do you mean by this? 

Katrin Birr: We have worked on reverse engineering for our repairs, for example. Put simply, we have scanned broken parts so that we could repair them digitally. As we were doing that, we found out that scanning can offer us completely different benefits as well. There are many things now that we do not have to measure. Instead, we scan them and adjust them that way. Another example is additive manufacturing. We repair ships for which there are no longer any spare parts, but for which we might have to guarantee that the construction is identical to other ships. This led us to do a project on making components and spare parts through additive manufacturing. We are still at the very start of it and do not know exactly what the end result will be – you could say that we are still at the research stage right now!

WTSH-Online editorial team: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs? 

Katrin Birr: Don’t be frightened! For start-ups in particular, it can sometimes be difficult to keep constantly changing and adapting without a solid customer base. However, as an entrepreneur, you simply need a bit of courage – courage to invest and make changes – and belief in yourself. 

The interview was conducted by Sabine Konejung

Gebr. Friedrich GmbH & Co. KG

  • Location: Kiel/Pries
  • Employees: 80
  • Founded: 1921
  • Industry: Maritime economy
  • Services: Ship repairs, ship conversions, special production, Consulting 
  • More Information: https://www.gfwerft.de

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