News that shipyards in Italy, Germany, France and Spain are considering the establishment of a giant pan-European shipbuilding company to compete more effectively with South Korea has drawn a skeptical yawn from industry watchers. The yards are focusing initially on naval shipbuilding, but the talks also are likely to include the merchant sector, with the aim of creating the shipbuilding equivalent of Airbus Industries, the giant four-nation European aerospace consortium.
But how credible is this talk of a "Seabus?" This isn't the first time yards have joined forces to build a ship drawing on the very best of European design and production techniques emulating the way four companies make different parts for Airbus jets for final assembly in France. The failure of the European 3E tanker project in the early 1990s, involving yards in Germany, Italy, Spain and France that built just one very-large crude carrier Bourgogne, doesn't mean that the latest initiative is doomed. The 3E project was offering a tanker with a capacity for 2 million barrels of crude, which aimed to exceed all existing and foreseen environmental regulations at a time when the freight market was in the doldrums and South Korean yards were offering conventional ships at unbeatable prices.
The latest plan is to build a family of standard ships, like the Airbus range, to compete with vessels offered in South Korea and Japan. And, it could just work, though the odds are high, especially in the commercial sector. The yards don't have to start from scratch but can build on a series of pan-European cooperation agreements. Izar, the Spanish naval and merchant shipbuilder formed by the recent merger of Astilleros Espanoles and Bazan, is considering an alliance with Babcok-Borsig, the majority shareholder in Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (HDW), a leading German shipbuilder. HDW itself signed a memorandum of understanding last month with Italy's Fincantieri to study possible synergies in naval and commercial projects.
Cooperation has produced concrete results. Izar, HDW, Fincantieri and France's Chantiers de l' Atlantique, the yards involved in the current "Seabus" talks, and Germany's Meyer Werft have worked on a design for a 35-knot ferry. They also have pooled purchasing of components, such as cables, are looking at joint training and education programs and will probably create an electronic procurement site. But they remain competitors.