"Up until now, most suggestions that "3-D printing" technology is the 21st century equivalent of Star Trek tech -- a reference to the famed television series' food-and-goods "replicator" device -- have been a bit exaggerated. You can't really walk up to a Stratasys  3-D printer and ask it to make you a cup of 'tea, Earl Grey, hot.' Not yet, anyway."

Was it only three short months ago that I was joking about this? Yet just this past week, Stratasys competitor 3D Systems announced a deal that seems to make food "replicators" a reality.


Real food, printed on a 3-D printer. Source: The Sugar Lab.

Buying start-up replicated-food tech company The Sugar Lab for an undisclosed but presumably tiny sum, 3D Systems is the highest-profile company yet to take a stab at commercializing three-dimensional printing of food. High-calorie, non-nutritional, fattening food to be sure -- but it's a start.

At present, The Sugar Lab mainly specializes in "printing" sugar into artistic forms -- the kind that might be suitable for decorating a wedding cake, for example. But 3D's new subsidiary says it sees this technology "evolving into a variety of flavors and foods, powered by real food printers for professionals and consumers alike."

Nor are they the only ones.

Baked in space
At NASA, the literal rocket scientists over there recently gave privately held Texas small business Systems & Materials Research Cooperation a $125,000 grant to try and build a three-dimensional printer that could use long-shelf-life ingredients to "print" a pizza suitable for human consumption in space. SMRC's printer will try to use shelf-stable organic base powders "derived from algae, insects, and grass" to print a pizza.

(While probably more nutritious than The Sugar Labs confections, it's probably safe to say that 3D's new subsidiary will have the edge on tastiness.)

And 3D may have another "in" with NASA -- and NASA's private-sector competitors as well. Back in June, NASA confirmed that it will send a 3D printer from start-up company Made in Space up into space, to begin experimenting with three-dimensional printing in zero-gravity. Assuming those experiments pan out, the next logical step would be to give zero-G preparation of pan pizzas a spin -- and wouldn't you know it? Among Made in Space's several partners is ... 3D Systems.

Meanwhile, 3D is joining itself at the hip to private space explorer Planetary Resources as well. First, 3D announced in June that it has agreed to help Planetary Resources build spacecraft parts with three-dimenstional printing technology. Then, just a month later, 3D added Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis to 3D's own board of directors.

So it shouldn't be too hard to guess, at this point, who the logical choice will be when NASA and when Planetary Resources start deciding who they'll hire to build their first production model 3-dimensional food printers. Even if you can't guess it after two tries, your 3D guess should be obvious.

The Economist compares 3-D printing to the steam engine and the printing press. Business Insider says it's "the next trillion dollar industry." Watch The Motley Fool's shocking video presentation today to discover how 3-D printing is putting an end to the Made In China era... and learn the investing strategy we've used to double our money on 3-D printing stocks. Click here to watch now!

The article 3D Systems Orders Tea, Earl Grey, Hot ... With Sugar originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of 3D Systems and Stratasys and has options on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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