Grapple Booms and Mechanization: Revisiting the Industrial Revolution

For most of us, middle school is a good number of years in the rear-view mirror. But if we recall our lessons from those years, no doubt a few weeks of history class focused on the Industrial Revolution. It might be argued that the tree care industry today is going through its own form of Industrial Revolution, moving from climbing, sawing and lugging by hand to mechanization for those tasks and others.

“Just like in the Industrial Revolution, there has been an explosion of technology that is greatly improving our efficiency and quality of life,” says Brad May, CTSP, a crane operator with Cumberland Valley Tree Service Landscaping Inc., an accredited, 24-year TCIA member company based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “The use of stick cranes and grapple saws to remove trees and mini-skids to reduce manual labor has become commonplace among tree care companies.”

Mechanization worker in grey shirt inside cab of a crane pulling the levers.
Brad May, CTSP, crane operator with Cumberland Valley Tree Service Landscaping Inc., in the cab of Cumberland Valley’s new Altec stick crane. All photos courtesy of the author.

The Industrial Revolution

Though a few innovations were developed as early as the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution began in earnest by the 1830s and 1840s in Great Britain. It soon spread to the rest of the world, including the United States. Modern historians often refer to this period as the First Industrial Revolution. A second period of industrialization took place from the late-19th to early-20th centuries. The second period saw rapid advances in the steel, electric and automobile industries. (

For our purposes, the Industrial Revolution can be summarized as a time of massive growth and change that would propel the world into the future. It would improve the standard of living in many ways for so many, and change the way goods and services would be brought to market forever. Three main concepts define the era or eras:

1) The invention of machines to replace working with hand tools.

2) The use of steam and later other kinds of power.

3) The adoption of the factory system.

The mechanization revolution

In my view, something similar has been occurring over the past 10 years in the industry we all love so much, arboriculture.

I remember at my first TCI EXPO looking around at all the ropes, saws, pruning tools, chippers, forestry trucks and stump grinders. It was awesome, and a few years later compact lifts started to emerge. At that time, the tools and equipment you could purchase were very similar to what had been available 50 years earlier. Naturally, the saws got better, the ropes moved from natural fiber to synthetic and chippers and grinders became safer and easier to operate. But largely, no major shifts occurred in production tree removal.

Industry works to develop standard and improve safety

Climbers with spikes, a rope and a saw would ascend a tree and masterfully manipulate the laws of physics and gravity to dismantle a tree. Aerial devices took most of us out of the tree, but workers were still aloft. The work was hard, physical and dangerous. The industry’s associations worked tirelessly to develop standards and improve safety, and improve we did. Professionalism grew and common practices were studied, changed and adopted. The language of “should” and “shall” in the ANSI Z133 Safety Standard, the bible of tree care safety, was born. But at the end of the day, for the majority of tree-removal jobs, workers still left the ground and ascended into the canopies, and, tragically, sometimes continued into the heavens.

Tree care accidents are unforgiving. The physics involved and the forces we deal with are significant factors, and our actions can have major consequences. Opening a TCI Magazine and seeing the little black and red men with circles or not, to differentiate injury or fatality and professional or nonprofessional tree worker, was something we all became used to. (Different icons are used today in TCI’s “Accident Briefs” feature.)

White truck with boom-mounted grapple saw and worker standing next to the truck.
Top Notch Tree Care operator Ed Kogut has the company’s boom-mounted grapple saw stretched out for a large oak.

A seismic shift

Then something major happened, a seismic shift occurred – a revolution, if you will. Mechanical felling heads and knuckle-boom cranes were developed, adopted and made available to the industry. For the first time, a machine could reach into the canopy – no human, no rope, no manually operated chain saw. A highly skilled operator on the ground could direct the machine as to what to do via remote communication, and it would deliver material – branches, limbs, trunks – to the ground, to a chipper or right onto a truck bed.

Many doubted this concept could really work. How long until that thing breaks? Nobody can afford something so expensive! But guess what, it works! It really, really works. Next, other machines with similar applications, but all slightly different, would appear – Sennebogen handlers, Magni telescopic handlers, mega cranes with mechanical felling heads. All offer the ability to dismantle a tree without a human being leaving the ground.

In 2018, my company acquired its first grapple saw. In the ensuing five years, our revenue would double. I would like to think our healthy growth was attributable to my incredible business skills. In truth, it was the shift we adopted in mechanizing our processes. Integrating the grapple saw allowed so many positive changes that rippled through the organization that it is hard to describe all of them in one short article.

Just like that, the changes that would follow in professional arboriculture would directly mimic the concepts that defined the Industrial Revolution.

white dump truck with a grapple loading a tree trunk into the truck bed from the roof of a grey house.
A tree trunk comes off the roof of a damaged home and goes straight into the bed of the crane.

10 concepts of mechanization

After two years of presenting on grapple-saw integration at TCI EXPO with a fantastic group of business owners who have shared the same journey as myself, some common trends have started to appear. These trends or concepts are not limited specifically to grapple saws, but include any shift from traditional means of labor to processes of mechanization, including compact loaders and aerial lifts, and then compact, tracked aerial lifts, cranes and more.

My 10 concepts or principles of mechanization include the following.

1. Applying machines to do a task requires fewer workers to achieve the same end. One mini loader with a forestry grapple can move the same amount of material as five to 10 workers dragging brush.

2. Mechanizing your processes changes the relationship you have with employees. Traditional methods suggest workers will be doing manual labor. Applying a machine requires a skilled operator and reduces or eliminates the physical labor the employee will be required to perform. The result is an employee who migrates from a worker to an operator, a very different experience for the employee.

3. Shifting from labor costs to equipment and maintenance being the larger expenditure is a major change. Mechanizing requires a significant financial commitment and an increase in fixed costs of operation. Variable costs represented by salaries become a smaller percentage of operating expenses.

4. Depending on workers to show up and execute a project shifts to depending on the fleet to perform the task. Human-resources issues will become less prevalent, as machines do not present the same challenges as a large staff. Inversely, a broken chipper, loader or grapple crane can halt production.

5. Improving job attrition rates is a result of projects being completed much faster after integrating mechanization versus traditional means of production. The faster you complete a project, the less time there is for a customer to continue to shop or change their mind on moving forward.

6. Handling and processing material most likely will become the bottleneck that slows down a job. If your crane is faster than your ground crew, chipper and log-hauling capabilities, you will not realize the full potential of your crane. Moves to very large, highly productive chippers, large chip trucks and material loaders have emerged as a trend to match the rate of productivity and maximize production.

7. Employing and managing a financial strategy will be required to attain positive outcomes. Understanding true cost of ownership is important. Mechanizing is very expensive, and maintenance is critical to avoid breakdowns. Annual factory preventative maintenance (PM) should not be skipped.

8. Having an increased focus on your processes and a love for the grind – and increased profits – will be the byproducts of how well you execute.

9. Adding residual value becomes standard. Salaries paid to employees leave the organization, never to return. Payments made for machinery used to complete the same tasks have residual value at the end of a term. Residual value refers to the estimated worth of an asset after the asset has fully been depreciated, e.g., a seven-year-old crane paid off may be an asset worth $200,000. The same $200,000 in salaries paid over the same amount of time has zero value to the company. Assuming the same amount of revenue was produced, the crane was the more solvent investment.

10. Mechanizing can result in ultra-efficient processes, but also can bear a heavy debt load. These ratios tend to be profitable when work is plentiful. Inversely, they can be negative when work is slow. A well-developed sales process is vital with the implementation of mechanization. A recession combined with an over-leveraged balance sheet can be a serious problem for a company.

small child in green shirt holding a handheld device with buttons.
Future Top Notch Tree Care owner Bradley Pipitone, 3, helps his dad track residual-value ratios for the company’s Altec truck-mounted grapple saw.


It is my humble opinion that the changes we have seen related to mechanization are as impactful to our industry as the Industrial Revolution was to our country. Generational wealth will not be built with a rope and a chain saw. Rather, it will be established with commitment to the craft, capital investment and a ferocious focus on processes of efficiency, humility in organizational leadership and fiscal responsibility.

Mechanization is the future of large-scale tree removal. Companies essentially set up and run a factory on site, implementing a production line in neighborhoods. They execute projects at warp speed, then break down and advance to the next site. Safety will improve, professionalism will improve, and one day we will look back and ask, “Remember when we used to do everything the old way?”

This said, not all projects will be able to be completed through mechanization. Traditional methods of rigging and removal will still need to be available. Climbers will likely be needed less often, but their value will increase when the situation excludes any other method.

Joseph B. Pipitone is an ISA Certified Arborist, an NCCCO Certified Crane Operator and the owner of Top Notch Tree Care, a nine-year TCIA member company based in Kingsley, Pennsylvania. He has presented twice at TCI EXPO, both times as part of a panel discussion on knuckle-boom cranes, grapple saws and mechanization.

1 Comment

  1. Mr Pipetone’s enthusiasm, clarity, and vivid language makes understanding the startlingly new and different process of tree removal not only clear but also fascinating to a layman like me. I had had no idea the industry had changed so much physically and also structurally and financially. What a punch this article packs.

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