Right here in Annapolis, a 3-D printer at the local Home Depot has been used to create a prosthetic limb for a five-year-old boy born without a hand. You can read the story and watch a video of the new hand in action here:Prosthetic from 3-D Printer
The maker, John Longo, a staff member at the store, has produced and donated about 120 of such devices over the past year and a half. One cool feature of the system is that new limbs can be printed from the same design in larger sizes as the boy grows.
Could 3-D printers be precursors of the replicators in the Star Trek universe? Currently, a wide variety of objects can be made from a generic material, spools of plastic filament. The versatility and usefulness of the technology has proven itself in many fields; simple replacement organs such as bladders and external ears have already been transplanted into patients. Presumably, replicators, on starships and elsewhere, create items from a supply of undifferentiated, cheap mass (like those plastic filaments), not out of thin air. The basic concept could evolve from the principles behind 3-D printers. Long before the imagined era of Starfleet and the Federation, those machines might become advanced and versatile enough to make almost any product needed in everyday life, as well as in specialized fields such as medicine and industry.
What about food? While we wouldn't expect that to be crafted out of plastic (I hope!), maybe a nutritionally balanced supply of goop could be shaped and flavored to simulate almost anything the consumer would want to eat. Could replicated food someday feed the world's hungry people? To a great extent, maybe, but considering the strong resistance to GMO crops by some factions, a movement might develop to reject such "fake" food.
Of course, even in the utopian future of a genie-magic level of technology, replicated products would have costs. The energy has to come from somewhere, and the raw material, although cheap, wouldn't be free. Moreover, well-off people wouldn't be satisfied with only replicated consumer goods. Doubtless foods made from fresh ingredients would taste better, and individually crafted items would become status symbols. Still, mass-manufactured products from some device analogous to the replicator would have profound effects on the global economy. Imagine living in a world where abundance, not scarcity, becomes the default assumption.
Welcome to the future!
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt