In the 24th Century, according to the lore of Star Trek, the replicator became the tool that really changed everything. There were still chefs and folks laboring in the kitchen in Kirk’s era — remember the hilarious scene in Star Trek VI when Valaris used a phaser to destroy a pot with mashed potatoes? But by the time fans met Picard and his crew, there was no need for people to toil on food. The replicator did it all.
So why didn’t they just replicate everything? Suppose they had enough energy and raw material. Why couldn’t they just replicate entire buildings or ships if they wanted to?
Real vs. Replicated Food
Fans have debated this for some time, including on this Trek BBS thread. Some feel that humans of the 24th Century (and beyond) might have been able to sense a difference between “real” food and replicated food.
We learned on Star Trek: Discovery this past season that the “solid waste” from the Federation Headquarters occupants is what gets reorganized into the food.
“That’s the base material that we use in our replicators,” said Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) in the episode “There Is A Tide…”
“Quite a few of the staff hated the concept of having replicators because they felt it made creation too easy and the items appropriately less valuable,” said Trek fan ‘Unicron’ on the Trek BBS thread. “With replicator technology, nothing is arguably unique as long as you have the molecular pattern to create it.”
Limits to What Can Be Replicated
Indeed there were limits to what could be replicated, though depending on the series, they varied a bit. It is assumed that no one can replicate radioactive materials, like plutonium, uranium, or dilithium.
If this could be done, then there would have been no need for dilithium mines, like the ones of Rura Penthe (as seen on Star Trek VI). If people could replicate dilithium, then The Burn — the dilithium shortage situation on Discovery’s Season 3 — would not have mattered. The Federation would just replicate a whole bunch more.
On Deep Space Nine, Sisko commented on Kasidy Yates not having the most advanced transporter technology on her transport ships. Since Yates had replicators, this would mean that she and her crew were unable to replicate new transporter parts. This means that some technologies could not be replicated.
Fans learned on Star Trek: Lower Decks that even the most minor things that Starfleet officers use daily cannot be replicated. They must be built in factories somewhere. Tendi and Rutherford were thrilled to learn about the T-88 scanners. They did not have these new designs on their ship, the Cerritos.
21st Century ‘Replicators’
Even on Earth today, people use 3D printing machines to create all sorts of new gadgets or parts for old ones. There are sites where people can download designs for all kinds of objects to print. It seems like the only thing holding anyone back is their imagination. There’s even a product called the “Replicator.”
Television personality and car enthusiast Jay Leno has been doing this very thing for some time. He uses a variety of printing and scanning systems to create new parts for his classic cars. In fact, Leno took a ride some time ago in a car made entirely of 3D printed parts.
That begs the question, why couldn’t Chief O’Brien just print, or replicate, a new runabout if they lost one in the Gamma Quadrant?
Cars are just the start, even in the primitive 21st Century. Companies across the United States are starting to use 3D printing technologies to build houses! It’s true. According to CBS News, many of these firms are printing entire neighborhoods.
The Reason Why There Are No Replicated Starships
So if humans in the 21st Century (the present) are starting to use printing and fabrication to make the most interesting objects without factories, why didn’t they make large objects like starships in the 24th Century?
It turns out that humans and others who live in Star Trek’s future probably could, but the shows’ writers decided not to let them do such things.
Thanks to the “Technical Manual” for Star Trek: The Next Generation, we learn that the minds who created the show decided to make things more difficult than just replicating a new ship. The book’s writers, Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, were involved in creating the Next Generation’s look, among other projects.
According to Sternbach and Okuda, the ability to replicate starships or other massive objects might be “great for Federation defense and science programs, but makes for poor drama.”
“For this reason,” write Sternbach and Okuda, “starship construction facilities have been depicted as construction platforms rather than large replicators. We assume that replication is practical for relatively small items, but that energy costs would be prohibitive for routine replication of larger objects.”