HBO’s hit series Westworld presents a fascinating, and sometimes terrifying, portrait of the future. A world created as a theme park, Westworld is inhabited by robots, or “hosts” programmed to fulfill their roles as Western archetypes: cowboys, damsels in distress, villains, and saloon keepers. Only the wealthiest of society can afford admission into the park, to interact with the hosts in gunfights and other seedy activity. It’s like walking into one’s favorite video game or movie, except rather than imagining yourself as Billy the Kid, you are Billy the Kid.
Though seemingly farfetched, the series goes to great lengths to give viewers a peek behind the curtain of this enterprise, which bears an uncanny resemblance to industry and the manufacturing processes of today. On the business end, the park is run by Delos Destinations, Inc., a subsidiary of a mysterious conglomerate known as Delos Inc. Viewers often see board members meeting with management and making suggestions to creatives. On the technical end, various programmers and architects are shown constructing, troubleshooting, and reprogramming their creations entirely. By getting into the mundane and tedious machinations of this world, the creators of Westworld bring this future closer to the present, inch by inch, making the viewer inevitably question how soon something like this can be created. Although there are many aspects to which that question can be applied, a good place to start is with the residents of Westworld itself - the Hosts.
Westworld’s 3D Blueprint
The opening credits throw the viewer into this process, though the materials used and specific machinery are never detailed. Opening in a lab, we first see a needlelike machine extruding some fluid, detailing and creating various objects: a piano string, a bone, an eye, a horse, a revolver. It then ends with a body sinking into a milk-white pool. In the course of the series, the viewer learns that the process is actually performed in reverse - the host bodies are created in that pool, frequently shown being pulled out of it, and then detailed with machines later. Though the end product seems distant, this assembly is closer than one might think. In fact, some of the technology shown is already here in the form of 3D printing.
The Future is Now
To begin, it is helpful to understand what exactly occurs in 3D printing. Essentially, it is a computer controlled process that joins materials together to create a three-dimensional object, usually layer by layer. Often a computer-aided design (CAD) is used for the model, and the material to be used is often softened before being added to the layer, at which point it either hardens on its own or from the application of a heat source. As shown in the Westworld opening, however, there are a variety of methods and techniques through which these basics can be implemented.
Before the Hosts are given their distinctive attributes, it looks like their basic model is created in a milky white pool. The founder and creative director of the park, played by Anthony Hopkins, is often shown observing these indistinguishable prototypes being pulled from the pool via a claw and then shipped off for further refinement. Though the sight of a human body being created in this way is jarring, it actually has a close counterpart in today’s world. In fact, it closely resembles the original form of 3D printing known as stereolithography. Through a process called photopolymerization, stereolithography uses ultraviolet light to combine liquid resin, layer by layer. This process is done by using a platform that is submerged in the material. For a company such as Delos, the most effective method of stereolithography would be through using a vat polymerization similar to the one seen in the opening. Those same machines are commonly used today in R&D labs and large-scale 3D printing companies.
The process shown in the very beginning with the robotic arm creating piano keys, bones, and a revolver is also widely used today. This process is known as extrusion, whereby a material is expelled through a print head, once again layer by layer and often using CAD. This concept was first introduced by Stratasys under a patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). Once their patent expired, the process became more widely used and known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), a favorite of 3D printing hobbyists and rapid prototyping because of its cost and speed.
The arm itself is also a reality, although not for full commercial use as of yet. They are commonly used for creating art rather than humanoids. However, the German engineering firm KUKA Robotics currently has a prototype of a robotic arm that can operate a 3D printer thus being able to print its own parts. (A machine creating a machine? It’s starting to look as if Westworld is approaching sooner than anyone thought.)
Just Out of Reach
The robotic arms and printing processes shown in Westworld are much more dynamic than those of today. The machines shown in the opening are far more advanced than anything presently on the market. As they are able to detail all parts of the objects from various angles, these devices are closer to a painter working with a paintbrush than a machine. As of now, the closest equivalent of this process is through hybrid systems which move the platform on which the object is created rather than the extruder itself. Also, machines are limited in the varieties of materials with which they can work. Currently, they are only able to operate within the spectrum of a given material but are not able to switch from plastic to bone to metal like the one in Westworld.
What about the detail and organic composition of these Hosts? Westworld shows these beings uncannily resembling people, with skin, tissue, veins, and some fluid resembling blood coursing through those same systems. In this world, such technology does not yet exist, although it is heavily researched. For example, Bio Inks are capable of carrying living cells and can be deposited using extrusion printers. Because of this, they have been used for printing tissue for drug testing and even skin for burn victims. Vascular system printing is also being explored but is extremely difficult to replicate due to the qualities of soft tissue.
Also, since these Hosts are machines, an organic neural network is not actually necessary. In Westworld, the Hosts are often reprogrammed and subject to troubleshooting, meaning that their 3D printing process involves the printing of circuitry as seen in computers and operating systems. Such technology is also in the development phase and with limited commercial use, as companies are experimenting with conductive inks for use in antennas, drones, and cell phones. Once again, being able to create the intricate circuitry for the Hosts is currently outside of 3D printing’s grasp.
The Wild West (No Toner Needed)
Despite these hurdles, the arena of 3D printing is one of great ingenuity and experimentation, much like Westworld itself. Engineers and developers are continually refining their work, discovering new capabilities and applications for their technology, some resembling the processes illustrated in the show itself. Rather than being a purely farfetched piece of science fiction, on a technological level, Westworld is closer to the not-so-distant future. Stereolithography and extrusion are already here, while much of the technology that has not been fully developed for commercial use is currently being researched. It seems as if with each passing year, the capabilities of these machines increase and new applications begin to seem limitless. For 3D printing’s future, tomorrow doesn’t have a page count.
Image Credit: Home Box Office (https://www.hbo.com/westworld)