Given a science fiction world with some level of realism, including 3d-print-anything/replicator devices, but also some physics-breaking technology like warp drives (like Star Trek), what would be some realistic, popular trade goods for shipping?

I can imagine stored energy is always going to be important, as is raw matter (ore, liquids, gases). Food is likely less important as long as there are food-printing devices and enough energy and matter to power them. Technology (blueprints) and other information is probably worth a lot, but can probably just be sent via satellites, and doesn't need to be physically transported. What else would there be that is worth physically moving from system to system?

  • $\begingroup$ You could get ideas here. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/15364/… $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 10 '17 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ "is raw matter (ore, liquids, gases)" - no, those won't be so much important. Especially if you have 3d printing which allow you to send plans for refinety and print it as long as there is energy source, like a star. Also you should define is that FTL or noFTL. And if FTL how much energy it requires to travel. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 10 '17 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the data security of the satellites highly secret IP might still be physically transported rather than transmitted. You don't want to let your trade secrets out of your hands if there is a good chance a hacker will intercept it. $\endgroup$ – Static Jul 10 '17 at 2:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg rearranging elements nd molecules is most likely many orders of magnitude simpler than chaniging atoms. So yes, raw matter will most likely be a very important ressource to manufacture things from. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jul 10 '17 at 6:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Given a science fiction world with some level of realism, including 3d-print-anything/replicator devices [...]" I smell a contradiction here. Unless you put some restrictions on these replicators, it's always cheaper to print in place. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jul 10 '17 at 8:10

Unique biological products will be valuable, silk for instance may be unique to earth life, milk and cheese will almost certainly be an earth only product and other planets will have their own unique products. Maybe there is planet with something that makes fiber optic cables organically, we know starfish produce the most optically clear lens we have ever seen even if they are microscopic. maybe there is an alien plant that makes a perfect artificial sweetener for us. Weird quirks of evolution have always been a source for desirable products. Many of our medicines originate in this way, for all we know platypus venom might be the cure for some alien disease or makes the perfect alien hotsauce. On each planet that has life there will be unique quirks of evolutionary history that make things that are desirable and unique just as they were unique to a single continent or region on earth. Now sure most of these could be synthesized but often has the advantage of efficiency at which they are made. We could synthesize chocolate but it would be horrible expensive but there is a plant that makes it for free from dirt, sunlight, and rain, more importantly had that plant never have existed it is unlikely we would have invented it on our own. so the information will always be valuable regardless.

Just look at past and current trade goods that fit this description unique biological products.

Textiles like cotton or silk

Spices and flavorings

Unique fruits, nuts, and other foods

Drugs both illicit and medicinal

Liquor produced from native plants

skins, furs, shells, rare woods, and exotic feathers for the high end markets

Also consider how much people today spend on organic and handmade products, if the technology is that advanced the different societies are post scarcity, meaning cost of shipping is nearly meaningless, the psychological value of the "real thing" will far outweigh the energy cost. "Sure some people might settle for milk from a machine, but my restaurant only uses milk produced by genuine cows."

  • $\begingroup$ Does sound like some Star Wars and Star Trek stuff there... $\endgroup$ – The Mattbat999 Jul 10 '17 at 1:55
  • $\begingroup$ If there are replicators, biological compounds are easily replicated and thus nearly worthless. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jul 10 '17 at 5:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Miech Depends on how precise those replicators are. If they're good enough for, say, replicating actual living organisms, sure - that's good enough for any biological compounds (and to us, pretty much magic). But replicators that only (say) extract iron from iron ore with near-perfect efficiency would still be extremely valuable, and orders of magnitude simpler. They might be good enough for rough constructions, but not good enough even for e.g. modern electronics. That said, unless space travel is really cheap, greenhouses would probably be a better option. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 10 '17 at 8:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Luaan Question mentions food-printing. That rules out any and every biological compound. If you can synthesize steak, including all the proteins, fats, sugars, cellular membranes and everything else that makes it steak, you can copy every type of food, spice, drug, textile, fruit, skin, or whatever else this answer mentions. This is pretty much a non-answer, because with that tech, everything this answer mentions is so worthless as to not be worth transporting from store back home, let alone over interstellar distances. This completely eliminates "grocery" stores too. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jul 10 '17 at 8:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Miech If it's printing from energy/pure elements, yeah. If it's printing from pre-made protein etc., no - but it's still extremely useful (no meaningful decay, fresh taste). It would eliminate grocery stores if everyone had the printer at home, which might or might not be true (e.g. in Star Trek, replicators are capable of pretty much anything, but they're only ubiquitous in the Starfleet, not the general population of the Federation). Even then, there might be some market for "genuine food" as a (widely faked) luxury item, but "luxury economy" kind of sounds like an oxymoron to me. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 10 '17 at 11:11

Artwork and cultural items such as musical instruments, cooking vessels and clothing. These are items which could be 3d-printed/replicated but assuming that there is some molecular-scanning technology which can distinguish genuine from replicated matter, there will always be a market for the real thing.

In this same way, certain historically significant printed books will retain their value even when all written knowledge is available digitally.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Real printed books could even be contraband, and therefore highly valuable and worth the "expense" to transport/smuggle. $\endgroup$ – user39523 Jul 10 '17 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ If I remember correctly, Saturn Run had musical instruments as a primary trade item with the alien structure, and certainly artwork qualifies - there is only one original of each Van Gogh, etc. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Jul 10 '17 at 5:41
  • $\begingroup$ Again, the problem of replication arises. How do you distinguish the one original Van Gogh from a hundred perfectly replicated copies? $\endgroup$ – Michael Vehrs Jul 10 '17 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelVehrs, you avoid the replication problem by not trading in the singularly unique artworks and relics. These are trade goods not national/planetary treasures. You don't trade a Van Gogh, you trade a "Caribbean Sunrise with 20th Century Boats and native fauna (called "coconut trees") painted by human hands in oils native to the planet." $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 10 '17 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelVehrs, Saturn Run was an awesome read! Thanks for reminding me where I stole this answer from. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 10 '17 at 11:37

I am not sure of this answer but I'm going to risk it anyway


Having played FTL and Rimworld, what is really invaluable is manpower and human (or alien) intelligence, epecially slaves with specific knowledge. For instance, pirates may sell human doctors, engineers, hackers, or marksmen that could benefit your crew. Or just plain slaves to clean your ship, maybe?

If you want a non-sentient object as commodity, I'd say

Ship Weapons or Equipment

These include, but are not limited to: Drones, Firearms, Shields, Big Guns, Ammunition, Drone parts, Scrap parts, Advanced FTL Technology, Parts that can help your ship's mobility, etc. You know. You gotta defend yourself from Space Pirates at some point. And you need to have the power to defend yourself. So I think this is really a must if you want to survive out there. For example, a shield. If your ship doesn't have one, one rocket can penetrate your ship's hull and it'll be bye-bye for you and your crew. So I really think these items are going to be rampant in the black-market or even in the regular market in your sci-fi setting. I think there's nothing barely illegal anymore by that time.

In regards to a more economic viewpoint, I'd agree to John's answer. I would just like to add Meat to the list. Because one way or the other, your 3D-printed food won't taste as good as the real thing, right? 😅


Animals as pets ans livestock. Consider how many animals are traded today for that reason. A colonisation group will want resilient livestock, possibly from different planets to deal with onknown or extreme conditions. Consider the Firefly Universe where livestock were actually as valuable as the spaceship itself. And wouldn't a cute furry beast make an adorable pet for decadent citizens all over the galaxy?

  • $\begingroup$ Pets, sure. Livestock? Hell no. Why bother with cow, if you can just print the steak? $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jul 10 '17 at 8:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If printing the steak costs more energy on a world were food for livestock is available en masse for free while you have not sufficient infrastructure yet to provide you with energy or not enough that you want to waste it on non-essential tasks, this might change the perspective. That depends of course on the cost of fodd-sythesis. $\endgroup$ – Alex2006 Jul 10 '17 at 8:33
  • $\begingroup$ @alex2006, +1 for adding colonization groups to the conversation. Generation ship colony projects would be a lot simpler if the mother planet could arrange livestock and human-edible plant deliveries from neighboring alien worlds. Even with printable food available, colonies will be a special case where any resource (including replicator energy) can unexpectedly become scarce. Support in the form of trade from neighbors would make colonizing safer and could be reciprocated when aliens move into our solar system's unused planets. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 10 '17 at 11:45

The only things worth transporting will be things that can not be replicated easily. With stated replication technology biological compounds will be nearly worthless. Spices? Every Omni-maker 333 will make every known and unknown spice. Silk? Socks are made of this stuff. Drugs (in both meanings)? Just input the name, you may have to void the warranty on your device, though (we will get back to artificial scarcity later). Steel? Supply enough iron. Spaceships? Just add blueprint.

Manufactured goods will not be worth transporting. There will be few types of goods worth transporting, but the only tangible ones will be:

Rare elements

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Helium is abundant. Oxygen and carbon are dime a comet. But Osmium? Rhodium? Iridium? That stuff is rare on earth. Estimated 2012 US production of Osmium was 75 kg, world production isn't known at all, but most likely is below 1000 kg a year. And we are lucky to have it at all. If not for the fact that Solar system was formed out of a nebula left behind by dead supernova, we wouldn't have heavy elements at all; thermonuclear synthesis stops at Iron, synthesizing heavier elements is endothermic, not exothermic and thus elements heavier than iron are created in very final stages of life of heavy stars. When heavy star dies, it disperses those elements, along with usual bountiful of light elements.

$6*10^{23}$ atoms of Osmium would weight 76 grams. Industrial production of heavy elements is impossible and is unlikely to be feasible in both near and not-very-near future. Perhaps one day, in a thousand or more years, but not any time soon. Until then, elements like that will remain valuable, especially if they are found to have further industrial applications driving demand. Nebulae left behind by Superheavy supernovae will be sifted for rare elements, any planets which somehow survive supernovae will be mined, systems which contain higher concentrations of heavy elements will be important mining and trading hubs.


FTL engines don't imply FTL communications. Without FTL communication, messages will be carried by courier ships. This will include everything from personal messages (letters), through zines (limited communication would lead to rebirth of newspapers and magazines), databases, entertainment (films/games/music/etc) to intel procured by industrial and military espionage.

Even if your world has FTL communications, it still doesn't mean courier ships are out of question: all widely used encryption methods are breakable, they just rely on breaking them taking impractically long time. Quantum computers are said to nearly instantly invalidate all of present encryption. If your world has quantum computers, no communication is secure, and you need courier ships to carry single-use keys. There is only one encryption method which is proven to be truly unbreakable: random single-use keys longer than message itself. Keys can not be procedurally generated, they have to be truly random. Quantum encryption is just a fancy name for dynamic generation of single-use symmetric key between devices within line of sight (optical fiber-enchanced line of sight) of each other, it won't work between star systems, it might not even work between planets in same system.

Therefore, world with FTL communications and quantum computers will have courier ships carrying secure hard drives full of single-use keys, paired with predefined receivers in other systems. Depending on world details, it might be huge corporations akin to present day ISPs supplying keys to subscribers, or it may end up with smaller-scale key-merchants, flying around, creating paired keys with receivers in every system and selling those keys to whomever wants to buy, or both.

Antiques and art

In presented technology, it's possible to perfectly replicate physical properties of any and every work of art. But for true snob that won't do. He will want real antique, certified, with long data trail at every possible place proving that his item is genuine. Objects like that will be worth transporting, because some nutty snobbish collector will pay enough to make it worthwhile.

However, it's important to remember that quality which makes them worth transporting is completely intangible. Perfect replica will be indistinguishable to the molecular level. There will be no differences apart from perceived "continuity".

This artificial scarcity, leads us to last possible trade good:

Law-enforced artificial scarcity

What stops you from copying a game? In world with perfect replication, physical objects will be as easily replicable as cracked game over internet. Thus, it's absolutely certain that industrial lobbies will stand on their proverbial ears to get governments to pass laws disallowing replication (laws like that are in effect today, with personal replicators, those laws would only get stricter), and replicator manufacturers to program replicators to somehow prevent copying. Heck replicator manufacturers will likely want to prevent copying of their own machines. Perhaps replicators will be programmed to look for steganographic watermarks, or specific molecular patterns, and disable replication in case those are found, maybe physical cartridges with encrypted chips will be required to authorize fabrication of restricted goods (a bit like present printer cartridges with chips preventing refilling) perhaps some other way will be found. Either way, internet-equivalent (either FTL-internet, underground zine network or something else entirely) will be full of bootleg designs and tutorials how to bypass copy protection on makers (which will void the warranty).


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.