When Play is Your Work
105-year-old Blue Imp making fun possible in playgrounds across Canada
By Jeff Baker
Think back to the playgrounds of your childhood. Good times, right? The woosh of the swings going back and forth, the hot (or freezing) metal of the slide, the metal Buck-O-Bronc horse you tried to push to the limits of its mechanism, the dizzying heights of the monkey bars, the terror of the merry-go-round, and the squeak of the teeter-totters – that is until your friend or sibling decided to jump off the other end and let you land with a crash!
You were young and having fun with your friends. You probably didn’t think much about the provenance of the play structures or give much consideration to the engineering and manufacturing work behind them.
Well, there’s a company in Medicine Hat, Alberta that started out in 1917 making horseshoes and rims for wagon wheels and has since evolved into Canada’s most experienced manufacturer of playground equipment, outdoor fitness equipment, park furniture, and more.
Meet Blue Imp, a division of family-owned and operated S.F. Scott Manufacturing.
Horseshoes to playgrounds
“My great-grandfather was an innovator at heart, and he didn’t run away from a challenge,” says Stuart Scott, President of Blue Imp. “He started the company as a blacksmith shop producing the usual products, eventually building his own machines to do the work.”
In the 1930s and 40s, S.F. Scott Manufacturing made the shift into fabricating steel farm implements, including inventing and patenting a hugely successful tractor-powered land leveller called the Tumblebug, selling more than 7000 units across Canada, and even in Argentina.
In 1936, company founder Simon F. Scott was asked to build a teeter-totter and swing set, but he hadn’t yet realized this was to be the future of the company.
The 1950s led to some more work on playground equipment for a local service club, and the company, with Simon’s son, Don, now in the mix, recognized the potential that existed in re-tooling the plant to manufacture play equipment. Blue Imp, the tradename, was also born at this time.
“It’s actually just a shortened version of Blue Implement,” says Stuart. “There was a blue-coloured impish character in some of the early promotional materials, but the name was just catchy.”
Through the ensuing decades, the Blue Imp name became known across Canada – from sea to sea to sea. New concepts and designs for play equipment kept coming, and the company kept pace with the changes washing through the industry – from metal, to wood, and to plastic, to combinations thereof.
“The ideas for play equipment come from all over,” explains Stuart. “We’ve got a team of seven in the drafting and design department, and they’ll tell you they have probably the best jobs in the world.
“Even when we interview for other positions, there’s an idea that designing and building playgrounds is a lot of fun,” Stuart says, “and I have to admit they’re absolutely right!”
Of course, when the end users of your company’s products tend to be children (and maybe the odd child at heart), safety and durability are going to be primary concerns in the whole process from concept to use.
Built for Canada, in Canada
“We’re a Canadian company – have been from the start – so we know what the weather can do,” says Stuart. “Our structures are used in all parts of the country, even in the Territories, so they have to withstand both the harsh winters and hot summers. And they have to stand up to whatever the kids will throw at them!”
Whereas some playground equipment manufacturers will incorporate plastic components for their light weight, Blue Imp promotes the use of steel components for the longevity and durability against the dreaded vandalism that visits on structures now and again.
“The steel components we manufacture today can have the same vibrant colours and appearance that some folks associate with plastics,” Stuart explains. “The coatings and treatments that we use on the steel parts can give the same bright colours and give you the durability that playgrounds need.”
It’s only fun until…
With the quality comes the safety that is critical to any play structure on the market. For playground equipment manufacturers, they can choose to have their facilities and products certified by an independent third-party service provider through the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA).
Through the IPEMA certification program, Blue Imp currently has 249 products certified to conform to specific criteria for manufacturing, durability, and safety. To maintain the certification, the company must re-test a minimum of 15 per cent of their validated products for the same or latest criteria.
“We want to ensure everyone using our equipment can enjoy themselves and can do so safely,” says Stuart.
Everybody can play
And to let everyone enjoy their time at the playground, Blue Imp also has a focus on making play accessible to people of all abilities through innovative design of play equipment and structures.
“It’s about making the total play experience – the combination of play elements – as rewarding as possible for every child,” Stuart explains, “and it’s knowing that not every disability is mobility-related, so it goes beyond just the physical access needs.”
For example, installing a stainless-steel slide instead of plastic will prevent damage (due to static electricity) to cochlear implants worn by hearing-impaired children, or providing components that can provide a rocking or swaying motion can be comforting to children on the autism spectrum.
Asked about being at the helm of the company that’s been in his family for more than a century, Stuart says he doesn’t feel any pressure, rather he feels the strength of the foundation laid by his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father before him.
“Before my father, Don Jr, passed, he told me not to feel obligated to stay or keep the company going,” explains Stuart. “He said to me ‘you’ll know when it’s time, and that’s alright.’ Instead of obligation, I feel a responsibility to keep going, to see through the next part of the journey.”
“When your work is helping kids to have fun, it’s really not work!”