A replicator on the Starship U.S.S. Voyager. Image source: Memory Alpha web site.
The replicator on Star Trek: The Next Generation and its sequels dematerialized matter and reconstituted it into another form. Although it could replicate food and other simple organic objects, the writers put a limit of the technology, deeming living beings and higher order organic creatures beyond its capability.
According to Memory Alpha, “replicators could be used for replicating machine parts, clothing or other objects ... Industrial replicators could even be used to replicate heavier machine parts.”
3D printing isn't quite a replicator, but it is a step in that direction.
The SpaceX CRS-4 mission delivered to the International Space Station in September the first 3D printer in space.
Made In Space’s additive manufacturing technology creates 3D objects layer by layer from filament through an extrusion method specifically adapted for the challenges of the space environment. In addition to designing and building the hardware, Made In Space will be operating the printer from a mission control ground station ...
This first printer will be using ABS plastic while the second generation unit, scheduled for delivery to ISS in 2015, will offer multiple material capacity and an increased build volume. The second Made In Space printer will be available for use by businesses, researchers and anyone who wants to create in-space hardware rapidly, affordably, and safely.
New industries are popping up to provide the materials used in 3D printers. Stratasys, for example, offers “offers a powerful range of additive manufacturing materials, including clear, rubberlike and biocompatible photopolymers, and tough high-performance thermoplastics.” Shapeways will send you 3D printing material sample kits, offering polymers, plastics and metals in a variety of colors.
The limits on the Star Trek replicator may be no obstacle for 3D printers.
On October 20, 3D Printing Industry reported that “Vancouver’s Aspect Biosystems has created a 3D printer that will bioprint human tissue capable of developing full biological functions. The bioprinted tissue can be used to test dangerous or experimental drugs, and could eventually lead to completely viable and transplantable bioprinted organs.”
Konrad Walus, one of the co-founders of Aspect Biosystems. Image source: Aspect Biosystems web site.
According to the Aspect Biosystems web site, their mission is to “to engineer human tissues on demand for broad applications in the life sciences.”
Aspect Biosystems has developed a patent-pending 3D bioprinting platform and human cell culture technology capable of creating living human tissues on demand. Aspect Biosystems’ initial products and services aim to improve the predictive accuracy of the pre-clinical drug discovery process by providing pharmaceutical companies, contract research organizations (CROs), and researchers with physiologically-relevant 3D human tissue models that they can employ in the development of new drugs and therapies. Aspect Biosystems’ technology has the potential to drive a fundamental shift in the pharmaceutical industry by enabling the development of completely new therapeutics for diseases that they are not able to adequately address currently, as well as test or re-test drugs they may have discounted in the past due to a lack of appropriate models. Aspect’s technology also represents a powerful research tool for fundamental biology allowing scientists to ask and answer questions about cellular systems that are not possible today. Building on short- and medium-term goals, Aspect Biosystems has a long-term vision to expand beyond drug development by creating human tissues on demand for broad applications in personalized medicine, organ transplantation, cellular and molecular biology, and the development of safe cosmetics and personal care products.
Take that, Beverly Crusher.
According to FutureEngineers.org, “The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Foundation and NASA have partnered together to develop a series of 3D Space Challenges focused on solving real-world space exploration problems. Students can submit 3D models directly to the site for a chance to win prizes, including a 3D print on the International Space Station.”
All these technologies help further the ability for human beings to permanently leave the Earth for settlement in deep space and on other worlds.
The movie Apollo 13 depicted how the crew had to kludge together a carbon dioxide scrubber for the lunar module. If they'd had a 3D printer, perhaps they could have just made one.
Bioprinting could lead to making organs that replace those injured while on deep space missions.
The 3D printing materials may be recyclable. If a part breaks ... throw it back in the machine, and let the machine remake it. Just like a replicator.
The replicators were common technology in the fictional 24th Century of Star Trek. Here in the 21st Century, we're about to creating the first replicator.
For more information on 3D printing, try 3D Printing Basics: The Free Beginner’s Guide on the 3D Printing Industry web site.