If you’re like me, you loved this season of Westworld. It was awesome for many reasons – complex psychological drama, amazing scenery, compelling story lines, and some really cool science fiction underpinning it all.
For those who didn’t catch the season, but may be reading because of the 3D printing topic or the buzz surrounding Sunday’s season finale, the setting of the show is a Wild West theme park filled with robotic “hosts” that have been custom built to interact with park guests.
Central to the premise of the show – from the very opening credits – has been the concept that these hosts are so realistic that they might as well be human. And 3D printing is the driving force for that that realism. In striking fashion, the opener shows a 3D printer extruding material to put the finishing touches on a piano, a horse’s knee, and a gun, as well as the eye and musculoskeletal system of a host. To cap off the intro, the printed host is being gradually lowered into a vat of material as a final step to put a smooth coat over the underlying bone and muscle.
All of this feels pretty science fiction-ey. But is it? Is there a foundation of science fact in this science fiction? And if so, how far away from reality is the 3D printing in the show?
This article will explore some of the key 3D printing capabilities displayed in Westworld, discuss the state of science as it relates to these capabilities, and give you a ballpark sense of how far we are from 3D printing on par with what you’re seeing in the show.
To level set and to avoid spoilers, I’ll stick just to what we see in the opening credits. So give this a quick watch…
Extrusion and Vat Photopolymerization
On the most basic level, are there 3D printers that behave like the processes in the opener – either extruding material from a nozzle or creating solid parts from liquid baths? Well, for the uninitiated in the 3D printing, the answer is an absolute yes. Extrusion – gradually depositing melted material from a nozzle – is one of the fundamental printing technologies, first brought to the market by Stratasys. When their extrusion patents for “Fused Deposition Modeling” (FDM) expired a few years back, we saw many companies roll out new “Fused Filament Fabrication” (FFF) printers leveraging the extrusion technique.
Creating smooth parts from a bath of resin is actually reminiscent of stereolithography, the original 3D Printing process. With stereolithography, a platform gradually descends into a bath of light-sensitive liquid resin. As that’s happening, one layer at a time of the resin is selectively cured by UV light focused on the platform to create a solid part. Like FDM, the original stereolithography patents expired a few years back, giving rise to a whole family of “vat photopolymerization” machines. Given that these sorts of printers tend to be a good bit messier than extrusion printers, they haven’t caught on as much with hobbyists. But they are found all the time in professional and industrial R&D labs and at 3D printing service providers.
Timeline: It’s already here.
One of the cool aspects of the opening was a robotic arm that extrudes the material at different angles. Does this exist? Yes, although not as unequivocally as in the question above. A number of companies have developed early models of robotic arms that extrude material. In fact, a Dutch artist even developed a way to extrude material in the gravity defying fashion shown in the opener.
Also, while it’s outside the scope of what we’ve seen in Westworld, we’re starting to see multiaxis 3D printing in metal powder happening as well. Certain “hybrid” systems which combine Directed Energy Deposition 3D printing and CNC machining can move the build platform along multiple axes, achieving something not quite like the Westworld opener, but still an indication of things to come in metal.
Timeline: Multiaxis printing is in the market today, although commercialization is relatively limited at this time.
While the skin and internal organs of these 3D printed hosts aren’t addressed overtly, it stands to reason that their skin perfectly mimics real skin and they have some kind vascular system to allow for blood (or blood equivalent) to circulate through their bodies. Do such systems exist? Not fully, but early concepts of them are being developed in campus environments today.
The printing of bio inks is an area of intense research at the moment. Bio inks are water-based solutions that can carry living cells and be deposited by pneumatic extrusion printers. This bio-printing extrusion process is most commonly known for printing tissue assays to accelerate the testing of new drugs. However, this printing has been successfully utilized on campus to print skin tissue for burn victims. And while not directly applicable to Westworld, other applications include bio printing onto biocompatible graft implants or printing bio inks directly onto fractured bone to foster bone growth.
Printing vascular systems – the network of veins, arteries, and capillaries that transport blood across the body – is currently another key area of research. Within the context of Westworld, it’s perhaps possible that the hosts could have plastic vascular networks, and those are currently printed today to serve as surgical guides – basically practice tools for doctors before they go into surgery.
Figure 1. Example of a 3D Printed surgical guide. Two cancerous bodies are clearly visible in this life-sized print of a liver
But assuming the hosts have real vascular systems, true bio printing is required, and vascular systems are difficult to print because they are soft tissue. As a result, vascular systems that would be biocompatible are prone to collapsing under their own weight. Research is being done in printing vascular structures by extruding the material for the vascular system into something that looks like a block of jello, which can in turn be dissolved away once the system is created.
Timeline: The building blocks of vascular systems are still in the research phase. It’s safe to assume that we’re at least 10 years away from the sort of integrated bio tissue printing implied by Westworld.
We never explicitly see printing of internal circuitry in the show. However, it stands to reason that if the hosts don’t have a neural network like humans, they do have some kind of built-in circuitry or other electrical conductivity.
So is printing of circuitry happening? The answer, again, is yes, although it’s also in the early stages of commercialization. A number of the same labs that are exploring bio ink applications have also spearheaded work in conductive inks, which utilize a similar method of deposition. These inks are commonly silver-based and have allowed for integrated circuitry to be built into things like drones and cell phones. Timeline: Conductive inks are actively printed in the market now for certain applications, especially antennas. We’re probably looking at 5 years or so before functioning circuitry across a full host body would be achievable.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 3D printers featured in Westworld is that they seem to have all-in-one capability – the same printer extrudes a white material to create piano strings, ligaments, bones, and revolvers. Is that really happening?
That’s where there’s a pretty meaningful disconnect. Currently, the closest we have to single machines capable of producing parts with multiple materials work just in resin, or just in metal. The Stratasys J750 is probably the most prominent multi-material printer, and it works across a spectrum of resins that certainly don’t include metal or ligament. Gradient alloys have been achieved in metal printing, but that’s largely a function of sieving in different materials at various times in the printing process. Additionally, there are some exciting things being done with respect to 4D Printing, which involves printing bespoke materials that change shape based on different environmental conditions.
Still, none of these technologies are rapidly approaching the all-in-one capability of the printer we see in Westworld’s opening credits. If we are to assume this printer can really do it all, it would appear to be making changes at a molecular level. That would seem to be a long ways from where 3D printing technologies currently sit. And if such a printer were possible, would it make sense to bundle all its functionality into a single printer rather than just use different 3D Printing tools?
Timeline: At least 15 years, if it were to ever make commercial sense.
So are we a decade from Westworld becoming a reality?
Many of the printing processes evoked by Westworld have a strong foundation already established by technologies currently in the market or on campus. So anyone watching Westworld should know there’s a healthy bit of science fact mixed in with the science fiction. It stands to reason that a good deal of the functional elements presented in Westworld can be achieved in the next 5-15 years.
At 3Diligent, we doubt that an extrusion printer that transitions seamlessly from printing bioinks, plastic, ligament, and metal is going to arrive in the next couple decades, if ever. The ways these sorts of materials are printed today are wildly different. To imagine all of it converging into a single printer feels a bit more like alchemy than the chemistry and physics of a commercial printer.
With that said, who says you need to do all the printing with a single mind-blowing printer and a vat of resin? With continued advancement on the foundations already established by printers in the market and in academic environments, Westworld’s vision for 3D Printed everything may not be so far away as you might think.
Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, “the 3D Printing Partner for Every Business,” an online rapid manufacturing service that supports designers, R&D engineers, and procurement officials across a multitude of industries. He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.
Originally published December 6, 2016