A floating park

Features - 2010 Breakthrough

Ambius learns to tighten its logistics and operations by installing a huge garden on a cruise liner.

April 14, 2010

2010 Breakthrough is an ongoing series of success stories from the green industry. Each month, Lawn & Landscape and its sister horticulture publications – Nursery Management and Production, Greenhouse Management and Production, Garden Center and Golf Course Industry – will profile businesses that have found success by working across the industry. 
To see more Breakthrough stories from the rest of the green industry, visit www.lawnandlandscape.com/2010breakthrough

How are you working across the green industry to succeed in 2010? Send your stories to Managing Editor Chuck Bowen at cbowen@gie.net or call 330-523-5330 and you could be featured in an upcoming issue of Lawn & Landscape.  

Ambius, a $123 million company based in suburban Chicago, is no stranger to large projects with complicated logistics. Consider the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. There, the only way to get materials – soil, plants and even a 35-foot tall ficus – into the enclosed space was through a 12-foot square hole in its glass ceiling.

But installing 12,000 plants into a giant park on an ocean liner in two days? That’s no small feat. But that’s what the company did last fall, building Central Park on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Here’s how they did it.

Winning the Bid

Ambius had done other work on cruise ships in the past – mainly installing and maintaining potted or artificial plants – but nothing on this scale. Winning the bid meant Eichmann and construction manager Mark Hawry flying to a shipyard in Finland and presenting their project for three days to the project team and architects, and then the company’s executive board.

They won, Eichmann says, because their plan centered around planting the material before the ship even arrived at the dock in Florida. Ambius would pre-plant modules with 12,000 plants at a local nursery, number them, stage them at the docks and then load them onto the ship when it came in.

“We showed it photographically, and totally geared it toward getting these 2000 modules on the ship,” Eichmann says. “It really was a careful orchestration of bringing in pieces of this puzzle. Twelve thousand plants dockside wasn’t going to work. It was tight quarters, and we needed to choreograph things better.”

An eight-person crew installed the irrigation system on the ship's voyage to AmericaHow it Worked 
The aluminum modules – 2,000 of them – were fabricated in Finland and shipped to various nurseries in the United States. Ambius cataloged them so crews would know what plants to put in them, and where on the ship they would eventually go.

“They had the blueprint and the pieces of the puzzle that they put together,” Eichmann says.

Eichmann says her original plan called for the installation to take a month. But cruise ships don’t make any money when they’re sitting in port, so Royal Caribbean asked her to revise her schedule several times until Ambius could do it in a week.

“That was really a lot of logistics meetings, a lot of thinking outside the box,” she says. “How many things can you run simultaneously?”

The answer turned out to be a lot. From September 2008 to November 2009, the company planned the installation, ordering and contract growing $1 million worth of plants and coordinating with four nurseries to both store the plant material necessary and let their crews work on the module systems.

“It’s financially on par with other projects (we’ve done),” Eichmann says. “It’s not the biggest in terms of dollars, but the biggest in terms of manpower and resources all in one place in one time.”

The company has offices throughout Florida, but didn’t want to interrupt their operations. So, it sent out a notice to its 2,500 North American employees asking for volunteers, picked the top 60 and flew them all south to work on the project.

Those 60 people were split into teams, each with its own supervisor and specific role. “The whole die was to keep people from thinking. This is your job. You’re going to do this,” Eichmann says. “When you get a lot of people together, everyone has a lot of ideas. This is the plan we’re following. Period.”

Eight of them were on the ship on its voyage from Finland to America, installing the irrigation system and covering the construction site in plywood to protect it from storms.

With the 60 people from Ambius and another 50 from Royal Caribbean, the installation of the modules took just two days. But nine days before the ship arrived, the crews were loading 22 semi-truck loads of material and arranging the plant modules on luggage carts in the order they had to be loaded.

“It was exciting,” Eichmann says of the process.

Stormy Seas 
Eichmann says the biggest challenge the crews faced – apart from a Coast Guard drill during installation that forced cruise ship employees to jump into lifeboats and a storm with 80-foot waves that delayed the ship’s arrival by two days – was working with the aluminum modules.

The garden is made out of 46 planter beds, each with its own 100-module puzzle. But the company making the modules in Finland made each type all at once, so Ambius’ crews got them out of sequence. And the notches pre-cut for the irrigation system didn’t match up either, and had to be redone.

“It was just a huge nightmare that showed up at the nursery,” she says. “Once everything got planted, we were fine.”

The project used one of the largest cranes in the world to load trees onto the deck.Working with Nurseries
Ambius worked with four nurseries on the Central Park project – one for the living walls, two for understory plants and one for trees. The materials were planted in the modules six weeks before their scheduled load date, and then consolidated at one nursery to be shipped out.

Nearly 12,000 plants take up a lot of space, and Eichmann says strong relationships with the nurseries helped.
“It was important for us that they maintained their day to day business,” she says. “We selected areas where we wouldn’t interfere and lined pallets up on aisles.”

The extra work helped, too. The nurseries were able to hire more people and give overtime to their employees, she says, which helped buoy them in a tough year. “This was just a great opportunity for what was otherwise going to be a slow season.”

How it Changed Ambius
Eichmann says working with Royal Caribbean has changed the way her company approaches its other jobs, making it more efficient and profitable.

“Never again will we just pull up a truck,” she says. “In the past, you have a plan in your mind, and you meet and discuss the plan. But never before have we timed how long it would take to pick each tree by crane and drop it. Usually we complete one task then move to another task. We never had so many teams running at the same time.”

The author is managing editor of Lawn & Landscape. Send him an e-mail at cbowen@gie.net.