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Humans of Manufacturing

Manufacturing Hope

Professor’s students manufacture devices to help people with disabilities

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It’s easy to grow despondent. Every day it seems there’s more bad news, another sad story, the future of humanity increasingly uncertain … Still, there’s hope. The world is filled with people willing to help others in need. Some give their time, others money, but no matter how small the gesture or the manner in which it is offered, the majority of us are spurred by a deep-seated desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves. For Joseph Mollendorf, that drive has become a way of life.

A professor at the University at Buffalo Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Mollendorf has a passion for making things. He’s built model airplanes since he was a kid, worked on his car as a student when he couldn’t afford to pay others to do it, and likes to “take things apart just to see how they work.” He even played a small part in the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing by working on the Lunar Excursion Module ascent engine during the summer of 1966.

In 1990, he and a number of his colleagues in academia were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), named “Engineering Senior Design Projects to Aid the Disabled.” Mollendorf took the proverbial ball and ran with it. For the next two decades, he would mentor young people in the art of manufacturing.

Mollendorf walked them through the basics of design, showed them how to cut metal and form plastic, encouraged them to adhere to a schedule and collaborate on projects, and taught them to apply for patents. Good stuff, to be sure, but the best part of the story is this: along the way, his students manufactured nearly 600 devices to help people with disabilities live better lives.

“I’ve had many thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to careers in manufacturing. When my wife retired a few years ago, we discussed what I was going to do next, whether I should retire as well, but I just can’t do it. I love it here. I can't think of one good reason why I shouldn't continue.”
Joseph Mollendorf

Their projects were diverse: a tilt-lift automotive seat to help those with muscular disorders become mobile; a portable object detector for the visually impaired; exercise and stretching equipment to improve strength and flexibility in the disabled; coat racks, shopping carts, automated cabinetry, and a whole host of accessories designed for those confined to wheelchairs. Year after year Mollendorf assisted with these important projects, enriching the lives of his students while making life easier for the program’s physically challenged recipients.

Mollendorf’s participation in the NSF program ended in 2010, yet he continues to help where he can. One notable example was a tricycle that two of his students designed and built for a university staff member who’d been injured in an accident. Because there were no funds available for materials, Joseph paid for them out of his own pocket, using a stipend he’d received for achieving status as a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor.

That was facilitated by another project Mollendorf recently undertook, with support from the Dean, who leveraged a New York State High Needs Fund to revamp the university machine shop. Fresh paint, several new machine tools, and a good bit of reorganization later, Mollendorf has renovated a facility where students can learn the basics of a milling machine and lathe operation, quality control, and CNC programming. He also instituted an after-hours policy, providing greater access to all and making it easier for anyone interested in manufacturing to avail themselves of the equipment.

“I always wanted to go into teaching, but I'm sort of a bottom line guy, as well as a big believer in manufacturing,” he said. “I love helping the students make devices and it’s great that some of those efforts have assisted others in need. But I also like seeing the light bulb turn on in someone’s head when they learn something new. I’ve been doing this now for 43 years. I’ve had many thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to careers in manufacturing. When my wife retired a few years ago, we discussed what I was going to do next, whether I should retire as well, but I just can’t do it. I love it here. I can't think of one good reason why I shouldn't continue.”