Chicago-Based Islander Alumnus Printing Last-Resort Personal Protective Equipment

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As manager of the Columbus Digital Fabrication Studio at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Islander alumnus Eric Fuertes ’07 oversees a busy state-of-the-art creative makerspace for his students.

After March 16, the day the private university suspended in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fuertes requested and received approval to utilize the resources at his disposal to create “last-resort personal protective equipment (PPE)” to donate to medical personnel, first responders, and essential workers as part of the SAIC node within the Illinois PPE Network, which consists of thousands of other volunteers in the Greater Chicago area.  

Upon receiving clearance to operate out the Columbus Studio at SAIC, Fuertes launched a facial bracket initiative on April 14. The brackets are part of a face shield that can be used by any professional at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. Fuertes said he can produce up to 150 facial brackets per hour.

“They’re basically for anyone who is keeping this country going – grocery workers, gas station clerks, and so on,” Fuertes said. “The school has materials on campus that they have donated to the effort, so I’ve been able to produce brackets at a high volume thus far. With the material I have now, I should be able to make roughly 5,000 facial brackets.”

Initially, Fuertes began producing samples of medical devices, such as N95 respirator masks and valve splitters that would allow a ventilator to serve multiple patients, at home, but quickly learned that hospitals were unable to use his creations.

“I actually went to hospitals where I was politely told that they couldn’t accept home-printed medical devices – and I totally understand,” said Fuertes. “But as the pandemic started to progress, I started to see other devices – like facial brackets – which we might be able to produce. They’re more of an exterior bracket – and we still refer to it as a last-resort PPE.”

Fuertes stresses that his design – now in its 20th iteration – has not been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but a template can now be found 3D Print Exchange section on the National Institutes of Health website. Other makers – engineers, architects, and artists, to name a few – have created their own designs based on the materials they have access to.

“It’s been great because even people who didn’t know anything about 3D printing but wanted to lend a hand have been investing in 3D prints and through conversations and discussion in forums, people are starting to mass produce these brackets,” he said.

The Corpus Christi native has deep roots in the Coastal Bend. He graduated from Ray High School in 2001 and studied foundry and metal fabrication in the Department of Art + Design at the Island University; he earned his BA in 2007. After moving to DeKalb, Illinois, Fuertes earned an MFA in Sculpture in 2011 from Northern Illinois University, where he also served as an adjunct instructor and professor. He moved to Chicago to work for SAIC in 2015.  

Fuertes said his time in the Department of Art + Design at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi taught him how to be industrious and thoughtful in terms of finding a solution to a design problem.

“I have a ton of ideas whenever students come in here to make things,” he said. “Not once have I met someone who came in here with an idea that we haven’t been able to make. It may be out of a material that we can’t cut but we will find another material that gets the student’s idea across.”