3-D printers, replicators, nanofabricators etc. are all technologies that, when pushed to their logical limit, seem to make the transport of finished goods obsolete when all you need to do to obtain any given item is simply supply your fabricator with the right raw materials. In a future with ideal fabricators, the only things that will ever be shipped between various human settlements (planets, colonies and space stations) are raw materials. Hydrogen, helium, and iron hauled from the asteroid belt and extracted from uninhabitable worlds will become the only commodities worth physically transporting across large distances.

Is this vision of the future accurate? I want to write a story where space truckers and space pirates are an important element of the plot, but the utter absence of scarcity except in the form of raw materials seems like it would kill piracy and most forms of theft pretty effectively. At the same time I'm aiming to be pretty high on the sliding scale of hard sci-fi, so completely ignoring fabricator technology and pretending that we won't improve on 3-D printing at all in the next century and a half isn't really an option without completely discrediting the plausibility of my worldbuilding.

Is there any way around this? Are any of my assumptions incorrect?

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    $\begingroup$ Any kind of additive manufacturing methods comes with pros and cons, unless ur world is so perfect that such technology can build anything just from the above stated elements... $\endgroup$ – user6760 Nov 27 '16 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ Take a look at The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. One of the main drivers of the story is that they have developed the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. Most things you need are obtained from a matter compiler that's connected to a feed. The time to compile is based primarily on size. At one point, a character compiles a horse-sized robotic mount and the process took a few hours. $\endgroup$ – Engineer Toast Nov 28 '16 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ But also note that Stephenson finessed the whole feed subject. The existence of dedicated feeds suggests that the fabs required specially processed raw materials, and the society as a whole required enormous amounts, although the fabbers also were capable of disassembly of unwanted items. So, where did the feeds originate? Who ran them? Neal sayeth not. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Sep 8 '17 at 13:25

10 Answers 10


I think there will always be a need for long distance goods shipping, it's quite likely that large factories will still exist loooong into the future for the main reason that it will always be much faster and far cheaper to make things in bulk (how do you think the speed of a 3D printer compares with an injection molding machine when making a lego brick?). Another reason is that people can walk into a store a buy a ready made product there and then on impulse because all the hard work and waiting was done by someone else, whereas a 3D printer/nano-fab will have some arbitrary waiting time involved before your goods are ready.

For example, it currently takes around 3 months and a mind boggling number of processing stages to make a single wafer of the latest and greatest computer chips, but because a large fab can easily churn out a finished wafer EVERY 10 SECONDS, odds are they will have one ready when you want it.

Many of the industrial processes we rely on in the modern world are quite slow and time consuming, but because they are performed on an industrial scale (pun intended) and run 24/7, they are cheap and give the illusion of being ready when you want it thanks to the miracle of warehouse stock.

The only way some kind of household nano-fab could compete with this would be either

A) If the owner is willing wait months for the nano-fab to make their product or

B) if the nano-fab can somehow artificially speed up the chemical reactions involved.

So even in our interplanetary future, there will be tonnes and tonnes of long distance shipping for all kinds of things so that people will be able to just walk into stores and just grab stuff off the shelves on a whim whenever they want.

Another reason might simply be that some companies might not release the designs for their products, I mean, Samsung might have the capability to make an iphone 6, but unless Apple shares the plans it's not going to happen. Giving people the power to make your product themselves means you effectively lose control over the designs and all your IP, I can't see big companies effective open-sourcing their entire manufacturing chain any time soon.

But don't let all this discourage you from writing a good story, who knows, maybe nano-fabs really will be time and cost competitive in the far future, it's hard to say for sure. After all, as physicist Niels Bohr once said "it's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with the point about bulk manufacturing and latency time. But why would the bulk manufacturers be located on different planets? Put the “top level” near each population center. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 26 '16 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ Nanofabs would be constructing products in an entirely different way to current manufacturing processes and production times could easily be minutes or seconds. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Nov 26 '16 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Earth to mars transfer in eco-mode, 90-150 days, and that happens not each day, windows are about each 2+ years. and distance is about 0.5 a.u. in best case scenario. Thus it may be just better to make, 3 month later, but not 2 years later. page 37 spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/mars_presentation.pdf . tnx @JDługosz, I was sure I typed 0.5 a.u. it looks like some internet glitch, its not me )) $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 27 '16 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ The ability to print stuff but not inspect the design might be handled via DRM ... and the arguments about screencapping no longer hold once you need a microscope to reverse engineer the phone you've printed yourself. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Nov 27 '16 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDvorak that may work. +Sam - I do not relay on time alone, faster delivery speed, increases energy which is need for the delivery. With reactive propulsion and with launch loops in both cases it will be a problem. Mars is almost as close as it can be imagine, other orbits need more delta-v in general. 3 times faster means 1.75 times more energy(fuel) with 4 times less payload, for a rocket with original 1:1 ratio for payload:fuel. For a rocket It can be better then that(by payload, but not by energy), but still. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 28 '16 at 5:42

Is this vision of the future accurate?

No, it is not, because it is missing one critical element of that story. The critical part is the distribution of the technologies.

If they are distributed this or another way, you even do not need nanofabrication for that, good old automation is enough. But if not, distribution of goods may have a place, but it will be under heavy pressure for hardware hack, reverse-engineering of hardware will be a thing.

In general, without implementing some kind of as of yet unknown type of engines, it is not viable to transport goods at space distances, with ships which use reactive propulsion.

But such a distribution may have a place at initial stages.

As for the problem with pirates, let them attack information deposits - labs, space habitats, ships, which may carry such information. Humans are still a valuable commodity - especially high ranked specialists, or just specialists for pirate colonies, as they probably do not have the intent to keep education etc. For sci-fi with pirates it is a possible plot.

There was a relevant question about interplanetary trading, and I wrote there a bit more detailed about technology independence. In short it is really more efficient to have local production, considering the energies involved in transporting goods.

Still, there is a place for transporting exclusive goods. For example art and other pricey things, which are not the result of mass-production.


3-d printing is not nano-fabricators. There are many things 3-d printing will be able to in the future, but many things that it won't.

3-d printing as we currently envision it would work well for metals and plastics, but there are lots of things that aren't metal or plastic. I'm sure there is no way to 3-d print complex organics, so printing, say, silk or fine wool for a suit is out. I don't know if 3-d printing can make carbon fiber. You can't 3-d print drugs, and you can't 3-d print some prestige goods like chocolate or wine. Also, you can't 3-d print water, which might be very valuable in a lot of places.

I think the solution is to say yes 3-d printing, no nano-fabrication. We don't really have any evidence that nano-fabricators will be a real thing in the future, so you can probably be good with hard scifi and 3-d printers and space truckers hauling luxury goods and fine clothing. After all, thats what the Dutch spent years hauling around Africa in the 1600s. No one needed pepper and porcelain, they just wanted it.

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    $\begingroup$ Science would like a word. ;) (We can totally 3D print organs). I think the TLDR of this answer is "you still need to ship the raw materials." $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 27 '16 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Draco18s It is relevant to note that in the case of the link you have (and its links) you still need the cells to be able to print the organ from the cells. So someone still has to make the cells; and that isn't exactly trivial. What I mean by 'there is no way to print 3-d complex organics' is that there is no way to create complex organics from, say, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. You can assemble complex organics into other complex organics with 3-d printing just fine. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Nov 27 '16 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think that is more of a "not yet" problem. That is, growing specialized cells from stem cells is easy (we've done that), getting stem cells that match the patient is difficult, but doable (we've managed to de-specialize cells from an adult into a type of stem cell). It's not quite to the point of "press print, get organ" but we can do it and getting to the "press button, get organ" level is probably a decade worth of active research. i.e. not impossible, just hard. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 28 '16 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ If bulk-shipping stem cells across interplanetary distances is economically viable, then it's likely also viable to build a facility for stem cell reproduction on each planet with a decent population. But small-scale shipping to less populated worlds or habitats could be viable. Bulk shipping in space is expensive (with current tech), but a container ship gets cheaper the more it carries. $\endgroup$ – MauganRa Nov 28 '16 at 15:55

In a future like that there are 2 types of material goods that I think will NOT be replaced by replicator goods:

  1. Works of art: Even if no expert can distinguish the original from the replica there still will be a market for real originals and the people with enough wealth willing to pay for it as a status symbol.
  2. Same thing goes for "real food" in stead of replicator food. There will always be people that (claim they) can tell the difference and the ones that must have "the real thing" as a status symbol. (Or maybe for medical reasons, if the replication process leaves some sort of residue to which some people are allergic.)

Besides that: Space piracy doesn't have to focus on goods alone.
There could be a huge black-market for stolen space-ships.
Kidnapping people for ransom or to use as slaves comes to mind too.


Well, for once nanotechnology could be forbidden, even if only on some planets, either for safety reason or because of experience. On the other hand, even today hand-made quality products are valuable and I don't expect this trend to die out, I rather expect it to grow stronger. "You lived twenty years with automatically produced stuff, but I have this wooden totem crafted by a child on Afrycan III after it lost its parents to erratic nanobots. It was so expensive the child can affort a house on Afrycan II now and that's why I'm the better person."

Pirates would get a lot of crap, but very emotional, expensive crap.


I certainly envision shipping of elements, but that would typically come from small bodies (moons, asteroids, comets) not off of other planets. But that is shipping of bulk material throughout the solar system.

I see a need for shorter range distribution. If industrial or specialized nanofabs are capable of things that the household version is not, or if nanotech must be quaranteened in a space-based platform, then you will have possibly planetwide distribution, but no further than that: the top of the production chain would be located near each inhabited planet.

  • $\begingroup$ envision shipping of elements - that is true at some extend, as possible extension of a colony, or if one have to then it have to. Funny part is most of the people at the moment talking about settling on the planets, and almost 0 thoughts about other possibilities. And on a planet it is not needed. At the moment we have extracted about 8.5 million tonnes of Lithium in last 35 years, one asteroid of 1 cubic km volume may(or may not) contain 320 tonnes of it as an example, and it will be enough for about maybe 40'000 people. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 27 '16 at 4:39
  • $\begingroup$ cite from List of exceptional asteroids: Based on IRAS data there are about 140 main-belt asteroids with a diameter greater than 120 km. One of such 120 diameter asteroid may be enough for 35 billion of people, is Lithium abundance in it is typical for universe. There may be bottlenecks by some elements in some cases trough. So that everything depends on situation. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 27 '16 at 4:39
  • $\begingroup$ The book "The Sword And The Helix" is an excellent story with this as its focus. It includes my favorite title in all of literature... the carbon monopoly mines and trades rare carbon, and one of its oligarchs is introduced as, "His Excellency, the Third Bond of the Tetravalency." $\endgroup$ – SRM Nov 27 '16 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ The Helix and the Sword by John McLoughlin? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 27 '16 at 23:46

3d printers have one of my favorite little weaknesses. I love getting to abuse it in stories. 3d printers can only produce "quiescent" objects (that is to say, objects that hold still while printing).

Most of the time this weakness is unimportant. So many things that you want to produce are indeed quiescent. If you want to print a gear or a brick or a scaffold for repairing a broken arm, the object naturally doesn't want to change very much, so it's easy to print. If you print something more fancy, you may have to add "support structures" to hold up your product during production.

Propeller with support structures for printing

However, as you go further down that road, 3d printing runs into issues. A lot of organics, for example, are not actually stable if constructed from one side to the other. They are only stable when produced the "right way," with protien folding. Another example might be trying to forge a Matisse with nano-scale 3d printing. It turns out that properly evaporating linseed oil is not an easy task -- and it is a very flammable task! It'd be virtually impossible to match the chemistry of a true painting.

We've recently "3d printed" heart valves, but that's really only part of the story. Heart valves wont grow properly if you just 3d print the stem cells and go. What we actually did was 3d print them into a scaffold, and then used a circulatory pump to emulate the forces which shape a heart valve into its natural shape. This sort of hybrid approach would certainly be popular, but the mere access to 3d printing doesn't free you from importing the right stuff.

  • $\begingroup$ First you manufacture a robotic arm and then it does the painting. Seems like the organic arguments you raise can be solve by "bank shot" of build a tool that then does the organic bits. Seem plausible? $\endgroup$ – SRM Nov 27 '16 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ This answer makes some interesting points about 3D manufacturing, but it doesn't address interplanetary shipping. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 27 '16 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android Once you realize that some things are hard to manufacture, shipping becomes a natural result. Individual planets may specialize in their non-printed goods, creating a market. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 27 '16 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ and it is a very flammable task! - do it in N2, CO2 atmosphere and others, not flammable. Once you realize that some things are hard to manufacture, shipping becomes a natural result. - not necessary, if it is possible to manufacture them it is possible to recreate environment for such manufacturing. Which limitation you have for a planet to not do that o^. Limited resource is only people if they are needed for the task and knowledge how to do. Bulk antimatter production is probably one of things which make sense to export it, as probably it will be hard to place on a planet. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 27 '16 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps. Hard to manufacture doesn't necessarily make something easier to ship. It depends which has the comparative advantage. Over time, they are likely to shift around. Cheaper, faster travel could gazump expensive manufacture. Then improved manufacture beats transport costs. Economic history is full of moving goal posts. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 27 '16 at 5:06

Lets assume a society with powerful general purpose nanobot tech and solar system wide space infrastructure. These nanobots could construct almost anything from a plan and abundant local materials. This includes people and so, if the nanobots are reliable and can record and recreate in sufficiant detail then you have teleportation. This atomic control over the human body need not be used to copy. Almost any disease could be completely prevented or cured. Humans might use such technology to augment themselves as they see fit. Minor changes that allow humans to thrive in 0g without bone loss are followed by more radical changes. Soon you have photosynthetic humans, humans with nanotube reinforced skin that can survive empty space unprotected, and cognitive enhancement. (other body parts may also be enhanced) At what point these beings cease to be human is left to the author.

Nanotech allows products to be designed atom by atom to have the exact atomic structure to fulfill whatever task it was designed for. As almost perfect recycling will be trivial the space habitats will not need large amounts of new resources. Everything required can be produced within the same small space station while providing a high standard of living. The energy required can easily be collected via solar panels and beamed to the outer solar system via microwaves. A couple of square meters of bin liner like solar panels (at earth distance from the sun) could provide enough power to keep a human alive and comfortable.

In short you will have a complete absence of scarcity and hardship and no one wants to take the risk and discomfort of being a pirate. This largely holds true even in todays world.

I end with some quotes about a nanotech assembled rocket engine.


Where great strength is needed, the assemblers set to work constructing rods of interlocked fibers of carbon, in its diamond form. From these, they build a lattice tailored to stand up to the expected pattern of stress. Where resistance to heat and corrosion is essential (as on many surfaces), they build similar structures of aluminum oxide, in its sapphire form. In places where stress will be low, the assemblers save mass by leaving wider spaces in the lattice. In places where stress will be high, the assemblers reinforce the structure until the remaining passages are barely wide enough for the assemblers to move.

Finally, the vat drains, a spray rinses the engine, the lid lifts, and the finished engine is hoisted out to dry. Its creation has required less than a day and almost no human attention.

Rather than being a massive piece of welded and bolted metal, it is a seamless thing, gemlike. Its empty internal cells, patterned in arrays about a wavelength of light apart, have a side effect: like the pits on a laser disk they diffract light, producing a varied iridescence like that of a fire opal. These empty spaces lighten a structure already made from some of the lightest, strongest materials known. Compared to a modern metal engine, this advanced engine has over 90 percent less mass.

Tap it, and it rings like a bell of surprisingly high pitch for its size. Mounted in a spacecraft of similar construction, it flies from a runway to space and back again with ease. It stands long, hard use because its strong materials have let designers include large safety margins. Because assemblers have let designers pattern its structure to yield before breaking (blunting cracks and halting their spread), the engine is not only strong but tough.

For all its excellence, this engine is fundamentally quite conventional. It has merely replaced dense metal with carefully tailored structures of light, tightly bonded atoms. The final product contains no nanomachinery.


Piracy isn't about hitting the jackpot everytime. It is a lot of hard work, with little to no luck until finally you hit paydirt.

And what do past and present thiefs get the most money and thrills from? Artwork, Antiques, Family Heirlooms, Cultural treasures, Status symbols, the thrill of beating the unbeatable etc.

Alot of items in today's world, and I assume the future, isn't expensive because of the cost to make it (although that can play a part) but rather the history or origin of the item. You can't manufacture the past history in a 3D printer, no matter how good your nanotechnology is!

Having a conveniently 3D printed wooden table or decorated vase doesn't quite make a Resolute Desk or Chinese vase of the Ming Dynasty.

Your cargo ships will be filled to the brim with expensive, hard to find, one of a kind items, being transported securely from one world to another at the whim of some super rich tycoon or political despot. Not every shipment will be so valuable. Just as today, not every shipment is so valuable. Mundane core materials still have to get transported.

If your space pirates can get their hands on the transport schedules, they will have a field day. Rest of the time? They will be scrapping the barrel, looking for that one big score and threatening the captain with mutiny.


What would be worth shipping between planets would depend on exactly how capable nanomanufacturing is and exactly how cheap interplanetary transport is in your world.

Things that would work under most assumptions:

  • Rare elements. Even the most advanced nanotech manufacturing or 3D printing would still require the right elements in the raw materials, and a lot of high-tech devices use unusual elements (hafnium in plasma torch electrodes, neodymium in really strong permanent magnets, etc.) In addition, elements common on Earth might be very rare on some worlds (such as hydrogen on the Moon - there is some ice in the polar craters, but it would be tiny compared to even Mars's ice supply, much less Earth's oceans or the gas giants' atmospheres).

  • Things that require extreme temperatures/energies to make. Plausible nanotech will likely have severe trouble with high temperatures and energies - nanometer scale is the scale of proteins, tens of nanometers is the scale of the smaller viruses, so manufacturing devices on this scale will probably be acting more like chemical synthesis than classic "factory" industrial manufacturing. That probably means fairly strict temperature dependence, and something as small and complex as a nano-manufacturer would probably be easily destroyed by the temperatures needed to produce e.g. diamond and other special forms of carbon.

  • As others have pointed out, works of art, antiques, and other things valued for "intangible" reasons would likely retain their value regardless of manufacturing technologies.

Other things that might be worth it given certain assumptions:

-Complex biological products. As mentioned by others, these might be tricky to manufacture. They might be viable exports from Earth. This could overlap with "things valued for intangible reasons" - even if there's synthetic coffee/chocolate/etc. that tastes the same, rich people on Mars or asteroids might likely still value "real tree-grown" coffee/chocolate/etc.

-Things whose manufacture is artificially restricted. This would only be possible given certain assumptions about how the manufacturing technology works, but under some assumptions, some things might only be possible to "higher grades" of nano-manufacturing, which some worlds might lack - maybe because of some mercantilist-style policy or security concerns about manufacturing some weapons.

  • $\begingroup$ diamonds bad example, heat and pressure we are using, is part of technology we use for their fast production, but it not needed to actually produce them that way and what stops nanomachines to produce device which will produce diamonds in the way we do it now. But in general it is a good point. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Nov 28 '16 at 5:51

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