Icon of the Seas: No Straight Lines in Innovation

Icon of the Seas

Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas is different things to different people. A playground to passengers, a paycheck to ports, a home away from home to crew, a profit-driving post-pandemic triumph to Royal Caribbean International, and to the people designing and building the 250,000-plus-ton ship, the largest cruise ship ever built is a floating laboratory.

Some of what’s happening on the Icon has never happened before at sea, certainly not at this scale.

Royal Caribbean Group Chairman Richard Fain and Harri Kulovaara, executive vice president of maritime and newbuilding, started dreaming up ideas for the ship in 2017, said Jay Schneider, Royal Caribbean Group’s chief product innovation officer.

It started with a desire to open the ship’s sides to the sea, letting in the vast ocean vistas through towering windows stretching from Deck 5 to Deck 8. This necessitated a redistribution of where the ship bore weight.

Enter the Pearl, a steel sphere at the ship’s center weighing more than a Boeing 747 that takes the place of the normal hulking port and starboard beams.

“To pull off the full glass façade, that superstructure pressure had to go somewhere. So the Pearl really does three jobs. Yes, it’s an arrival moment. Yes, we think it’s going to be an amazing awe-inspiring experience for people. And the heavy beams for the superstructure of the ship essentially run through the Pearl. And the Pearl takes on the weight at this point of the ship. It’s first purpose is supporting the stress of the ship,” Schneider said. “Everybody else creates the same old cruise ships that follow the normal structure.”

Test Lab

Excess cold from the ship’s 4,000-cubic-meter LNG tanks, fabricated at Meyer Neptune, will aid air-conditioning services while heat recovery systems will help with freshwater production, said chief engineer Stig Eriksen.

Less certain is how to optimize the Microwave Assisted Pyrolysis (MAP) system.  The MAP technology turns food waste, bio waste, and solid waste into fuel that can be used for the desalinization plant. It creates a pelletized carbon by-product farmers use for fertilizer.

Fuel from the MAP system can also aid the power plant, Eriksen said. The right combination of wet to dry waste is something they are studying, in part with the assistance of artificial intelligence.

“All this technology we are learning today we will then use on the next ship,” he said.

Nick Rose, director of Royal Caribbean’s environmental programs, said the waste-to-energy plant on the ship was roughly the same size as those used on land but had never been placed on a cruise ship before. In fact, he said, it was designed for the Icon before the International Maritime Organization even had rules about it.


Kulovaara hinted at the old idiom about the ratio of inspiration to perspiration in the role of genius.

“It’s easy to come up with those things. Five percent of innovation is coming up with the idea,” Kulovaara said. “The other 95 percent is studying how to put it in practice and being ready to adjust when it doesn’t work as you thought.

“It’s a mindset. You need to be really passionate about these things and find the perseverance to see it through,” he said. “Every single thing, whether it’s dealing with advanced propellers or really advanced ecology elements, we will have to deal with teething problems.”

Finding the most sustainable solution is not often the easiest solution, Kulovaara said.

“It is not a straight line,” he said. “When we go back and look at the history of any technology that we put on board the ships, they are initially full of problems. They might work on land but when you put them on a ship you find you might have a lot of teething problems, partly from the scale, partly from the weight point of view, and then also from the ocean point of view.”

Once the mitigating factors are identified, you can move forward with confidence.

“Future-proofing is the foundation,” Kulovaara said. “We are testing new fuel cells. They are very simple. The fuel cell itself is not the issue. It’s everything in marine-izing that. That’s not a straight line. New engines burning new fuels, cleaner fuels, will always have trouble in the beginning.”

This means there’s a greater need to build in even more redundancies to account for likely downtime.

“We have more of these ships coming. We need to act quickly. We have a huge amount of development and solutions to find,” he said. “You work with the best partners, the best minds, with a clear goal in mind, you solve the issues as they come.”

Once the ship is in service, Kulovaara and Royal Caribbean International president Michael Bailey said they’d be walking around looking for areas to improve.

“The DNA of Royal Caribbean is quite powerful, and I think the innovation and creation and everything we’ve learned over all these decades has really informed how we look into the future,” said Bailey, a former ship’s purser who’s been with Royal Caribbean for 43 years.

“Understanding your customer and understanding how they want to experience the Royal Caribbean brand is fundamental to being able to create new products like the Icon. It’s not any kind of throwing-a-dart-on-a-board kind of way. We really do look at a huge amount of data. We’ve got a vast amount of knowledge and experience within our company and we very acutely focus on delivering a wow experience for our guests. I think it’s a collective intelligence about our customer that allows us to deliver these kinds of products.”

Excerpt from the Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine Summer 2023


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