Mechanical engineering student wins international machining competition

Gus Bronk designed, machined his own keyboard at WSU mechanical engineering lab, won post-secondary education competition



Gus Bronk operates one of the mills Thursday afternoon in the Cougar Shop in the Engineering Teaching and Research Laboratory.

ALEX MCCOLLUM, Evergreen reporter

Gus Bronk, senior mechanical engineering major, won an international competition in September for designing and building his own computer keyboard.

The keyboard Bronk designed and built is made from several materials, including aluminum, carbon fiber and tantalum. The process of designing and building the keyboard was particularly difficult because of the mills available for cutting out the pieces, Bronk said. 

The two mills in the Cougar Shop of the Engineering Teaching and Research Laboratory only move material on the X, Y and Z axes. Bigger mills can rotate material and move it in other ways. Bronk said he had to figure out how to work around the machines’ limits because of the keyboard’s slanted shape and size.

Bronk said he decided to make a keyboard because he is a nerd. He wanted a new keyboard and started the project with a simple design in mind, then later scrapped it.

“I first started making it easy to machine, then I was like, ‘you know, this is lame. Let’s try and do something a little cooler,’ that ended up being more difficult to machine,” he said.

Once all the pieces of the keyboard were milled, Bronk said he had to send it to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to be anodized before engraving the keys. Anodization is a process that prevents aluminum and other materials from oxidizing, said Robert “Kurt” Hutchinson, WSU mechanical engineering laboratory manager.

Engraving the 109 keys with all the right letters, numbers and words was also time-consuming and difficult because of their shape, he said. Bronk wrote all the coding for the keyboard and engraving.

“And it’s not something that a student – with the experience our students have – tackles something that complicated, so I was all over letting him try it,” Hutchinson said.

Bronk said he finished engraving the keyboard shortly before the deadline to mail it in June. He received the notification that he won the competition in September. He said the first thing he did was tell Hutchinson and then his parents.

The Mastercam Wildest Parts competition is a machining competition for students and professional engineers to design and build something unique, according to the Mastercam website. Bronk competed in the post-secondary education division, which includes colleges, universities and trade schools.

Mastercam sponsors the Wildest Parts competition every year. The 2020 competition was canceled because of the pandemic. When the 2021 competition came up, Hutchinson said he encouraged Bronk to finish the keyboard, which he started before the pandemic.

Mastercam is a company that creates software used for manufacturing machinery, Hutchinson said. The mills in ETRL run on Mastercam software.

Bronk and Jack Spieker, WSU mechanical engineering major, worked as technical assistants for Hutchinson in past semesters, Hutchinson said. This semester, he does not have TAs, so Spieker and Bronk stepped in to help because they both have experience working with the machinery.

“[Bronk is] one of these guys that pretty much everyone likes because he will bend over backwards to help people without them ever asking or saying anything,” Hutchinson said.

Bronk engraved the Mastercam logo, as well as a thank-you message to his family, Hutchinson, Spieker and the fast-food workers on Stadium Way on the back of the keyboard. Bronk said he also included his own personal logo, which looks like a wizard hat. 

Bronk won a cash prize, as well as a license to the Mastercam software, he said. Normally, a license for the software he used to make the keyboard costs about $40,000.

Bronk said he developed an interest in engineering through his father, who is also a mechanical engineer. His father gave him a model rocket for his first birthday. 

Bronk said he originally considered an electrical engineering career path, then took the mechanical engineering route after working in a machine shop in high school.

Bronk’s keyboard is made of aluminum, carbon fiber and tantalum.

Over the summer, Bronk interned for the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery as an equipment reliability engineer. He worked on a team that fixed things in the refinery when they broke down and came up with solutions to make things run more efficiently, he said. 

Phillips 66 offered Bronk the position again for next summer, he said.

Bronk also works as the lead engineer for WSU’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers club, he said. The club builds a race car every year and submits it in a design competition. Bronk’s job as lead engineer puts him in charge of technical leadership and making sure all the teams on the project have a strong direction, he said.

The keyboard he designed will be on display with the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, Hutchinson said. The keyboard will also travel to different exhibitions. It will be about a year before it is returned to Bronk.

When he does get it back, Bronk said he plans to use it. The keyboard is fully wired and functional and will replace the one he currently has.

Hutchinson said Bronk’s recognition is a positive influence for younger mechanical engineering students.

“It really inspires them to work hard to try things that maybe they haven’t thought they were capable of,” he said.