In the middle of the episode "Eye of the Beholder" (from the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation) one of the crew members says to Troi and Worf that [no direct cite] the entire ship was built by people at Utopia Planitia. There were people virtually everywhere and he recalls himself placing some cord "right beyond that panel".

It is the 24th Century, right? Currently, four hundred years before that time, we have fully automated plants, that are able to produce most of a car, ship or plane, if not entire ones, with little or no help from human efforts. How can we imagine (taking today's progress of science as a base), that in the 24th century ships will be built using human power mostly or only? How can we believe that after the next four hundred years someone will be manually placing a cord somewhere?

Automated production lines and using pure robotic sections in plants are not a 21st Century discovery. There were available (at least in the automobile industry) back in the early 1980s, if not earlier. Star Trek: The Next Generation writers and producers must have known this.

Is there any in-universe or out-of-universe explanation as to why they decided to push this matter to a level where it becomes hard to believe, i.e. that 24th Century ships are built by hand and by human power?

This question is related to "Why are there so few robots in Star Trek?", but only in the context of robotic machines designed to automate or aid in production and building processes — not about full-featured androids intended to replace (biological) human engineering crews.

  • 4
    That's post-Skynet era. Why would you like to try nasty computers again?
    – user931
    Apr 25, 2015 at 14:13
  • @Richard - I don't think this is a duplicate, since this question is about robots, the other is specifically about replicators. The accepted answer to the other question is specifically about energy requirements of replicators, so it doesn't answer this one.
    – Hypnosifl
    Apr 25, 2015 at 15:57
  • 1
    Because in the Star Trek universe no-one works for money, only for personal fulfillment. If you wanted to build a kick-ass starship, why wouldn't you?
    – Gaius
    Apr 25, 2015 at 16:17
  • 3
    Union contracts limit the number of robots allowed to work on a particular starship at any given time.
    – BBlake
    Apr 25, 2015 at 20:49
  • 3
    I remember reading that one of the main advantages of the iPhone being made by Foxconn in China was that because they use almost all human power they are much more nimble and can adapt to new technology almost over night instead of having to spend a bunch of time making new robots before they can make the product. I assume when you are making only a few of these ships its easier to just have humans do it than tool a bunch of robots to do it. Also it was one of the first of its class. Maybe the robots are all making disposable Miranda class ships.
    – spicyness
    Apr 25, 2015 at 21:46

4 Answers 4


Simply put, Rodenberry didn't like robots. Robots, robotic technology and "self-aware" machines were a bugaboo for Gene Rodenberry's idea of the future. There are very few episodes where self-aware machines or even dumb robots were in place instead of human effort. Rodenberry believed in the idea of an empowered and enlightened Human future. Just because you CAN build androids, doesn't mean you should.

enter image description here

It's not just starships, I imagine most things in the Federation are replicated and then put together with human effort. People don't HAVE to work, but there's nothing saying they might not WANT to. Robots remove labor from the workforce (as we can see on Earth already) but when people are unemployed and there is still a profit engine, unemployment means disenfranchisement.

  • I also can't believe, given the scale of starships, some sort of limited robotic support isn't used to do at least some of the work. On modern era ships, cables are run by humans, but I can imagine smaller, limited intellect/or remote controlled robots being used for work such as that; cables, pipes, conduit, manifolds, all kinds of piping could be run and maintained by small robots we just aren't privy to.

When Lily Sloane asked how much the USS Enterprise-E cost to build, Picard tells her "The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity." (Star Trek: First Contact)

In a future without money, employment is opportunity to do something new, different, interesting and something you want to do everyday, because you want to. No one works a dead end job in the Federation, because, presumably, everyone is doing what they would LIKE doing.

When Nog suggests that Jake should bid for a baseball card in an auction, Jake says "I'm Human, I don't have any money." Nog replies "It's not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement." Jake says "Hey, watch it. There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." Nog then replies "What does that mean?" Jake responds "It means we don't need money!" Nog quickly points out, however, that Jake wouldn't be able to bid or borrow. (DS9: "In the Cards")

  • Part of the lack of robots may have been what might have been, at the time, a complete inability to imagine things like robotic assembly lines in place today, or perhaps it was a cultural ideal that humans would want to create their machines and devices in the future, the same way we do today.

  • As Star Trek progressed, ideas which were verboten in the past, slowly made their way into the stories of the modern era, i.e. Data, a self-aware android, unique and allowed to serve in Star Fleet. Technically he and his "brothers" wasn't the first self-aware machine we are exposed to, Harry Mudd, discovered an entire planet of client-server humanoids with some degree of awareness.

The first truly successful androids in the Federation were the Soong-type androids created by Doctor Noonien Soong. Most notable of these was Lieutenant commander Data, who served as operations officer on board the USS Enterprise-D and USS Enterprise-E. (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

  • We know this means the Federation has been exposed to robotic/android technology since the TOS era. We also know the Federation rarely seems to partake of it (on screen). This does not mean there aren't industrial robots working those industrial replicators, only that we are not privy to their operation.

The androids of the planet Mudd originated in the Andromeda Galaxy. They were constructed by an unnamed humanoid species for the purpose of performing necessary service functions, freeing their makers to evolve a perfect social order. Using a combination of irrational behavior and logical paradoxes, the androids were eventually overcome by the Enterprise crew with the assistance of Harry Mudd. With the androids incapacitated, it became possible for the Starfleet personnel to reprogram the androids to continue once again the project they had been sent to the planet to accomplish. (TOS: "I, Mudd"; TNG: "Conspiracy")

  • This means the Federation understood robotics/android well enough to use and reprogram the Mudd series of androids but had no interest in exploiting them for their labor. Given their strength and durability, they might have been excellent, if limited assets, working in Federation space. Instead, the Federation routed traffic away from Planet Mudd.

  • Perhaps industrial robots/replicators are a state secret, or are only used in extremis, say when the Federation needs to crank out dozens of ships/fighters/shuttlecraft/photon torpedoes at a time.

  • We know the Federation uses replicators to create a great deal of their ships components and subsystems; tritanium hulls, bulkheads, power plants, fundamental EPS and computer/tricorder technology and the like. Depending on the device and its energy or complexity requirements, many things may be able to be replicated fully or in part.

  • This isn't just a Federation issue. None of the Alpha Quadrant species seem particularly fond of robotic help beyond the use of "smart systems" on their starships. Perhaps its a psychological issue, perhaps it keeps people working, perhaps it's an issue of trust of machines or their inability to keep them secure enough from hacking, viruses and the distribution of malware.

Look at it this way: given AI sophistication, if you used lots of robots and someone got on board your ship or in your station and could crack their defense codes, they would suddenly end up with a large number of robotic death machines which used to belong to you and now belong to your enemy. Perhaps the civilizations of the Alpha quadrant simply want to avoid such an unfortunate circumstance and keep people artistically employed.


Because that's how ships are built now.

A lot of the assumptions underpinning your question are flat out wrong. Far from it being unbelievable that ships are built by hand, and far from it being the case that in the 20th century we turned every construction job into a robot-manned automated assembly plant, in the real world right now there are people whose jobs are to do exactly what that character in a sci-fi television series did: power conduit installation and wire pulling.

"I remember running a power conduit right behind that wall there." — Walter Pierce, "Eye of the Beholder

In the U.S. Navy they are called Construction Electricians.

Given that NCC is widely stated to be Naval Construction Contract, it is clear that starship construction in Star Trek is modelled on real world shipbuilding in the minds of its writers, as opposed to your idea of car manufacture. Real world shipbuilding is a lengthy, expensive, complex, and labour intensive process.

In the real world, you do get teams of thousands of people working for years, and figures bandied about such as "900 miles of cable" (the amount used for the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan) and "3 million metres of cable" (the amount used for HMS Queen Elizabeth). According to an article in The Engineer, electricians were making "10,000 electrical terminations per week" at one point during the construction of the Queen Elizabeth.

If you want to know even more on how this is done in the real world, the U.S. Navy has published a training manual for construction electricians. Conduit installation, and cable pulling with fishtape, is covered on pages 5–27 to 5–36. There are no robots. ☺

Further reading

  • One of the featured occupations in a recent documentary I saw on the British apprenticeship system was shipbuilding. Specifically, the apprentices were being trained on how to install electrical systems in British military submarines. And it is, as you say, a very labor-intensive process without any robots involved, as they're tasks that are difficult to fully automate. Apr 25, 2015 at 22:35
  • This makes sense. Given both the complexity and the limited production run of ship-size vehicles, it would take far more time and effort to produce an automated process capable of producing them, as opposed to expending that same time and energy on producing the vessels directly. By the time you got done producing the automated process (and associated infrastructure), you could have built all the ships that it will ever produce by yourself instead. It just doesn't make sense ROI-wise.
    – Wolfie Inu
    Nov 10, 2015 at 12:56

we have fully automated plants, that are able to produce most of the car, ship or plane,

True, false, false.

Car manufacturing has a lot of automation. We also make a lot of them. We make rather fewer small watercraft, not that many Boeing 777, and a very small number of identical ocean liners or capital ships of the line (note the keyword "identical"). As volume goes down the per-unit cost of automation goes way up to where it is unaffordable. Assembly lines are not all that interchangeable - if you tool up for cars you can't recycle the line for buses - you dismantle the factory to the bare walls and rebuild as a bus factory.

So, as the number of Galaxy-class starships barely cracked the double-digits it was hardly worth setting up any kind of mass production for them.

  • 3
    While you completely convinced me, that my today assumptions were wrong, I still don't see match for future presented in Star Trek. That's a story about four centuries into future! Think what engineering methods were used in 1600-1700...
    – trejder
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:06
  • 2
    Even semi-sentient AI robots will need to be programmed (and the Trek universe doesn't seem to like droids all that much). Skilled engineers can work out things like cable routing (a huge task) without plans. If they develop a ship-sized replicator things might be different.
    – paul
    Apr 29, 2015 at 7:06
  • 2
    @trejder: Look at how high-end low-volume factories have progressed over the centuries. They've more or less remained the same in terms of reliance on skilled laborers, only those laborers are now equipped with more advanced tools and work with more advanced materials. Instead of lathes, vices and micrometers they're now using hydroforming presses, lift-assist devices and CT scans. The 24th century probably uses replicators instead of traditional machining and employ isolinear circuitry/bio-neural gel packs instead of silicon transistors, but that doesn't mean everything will change. May 1, 2015 at 15:08

(Warning, most of my knowledge comes from the books as well as TV shows, so it's possible not everything I'm remembering is "canon.")

Replicators are used to build sections of hull, modules of starships, and smaller systems like shuttlecraft and shuttlepods.

However, remember that every single molecule of an item must be stored in a computer in order to replicate something. For the size of a pizza, I imagine the tech of the future can easily compress and store that data, but for something the size and complexity of a Galaxy Class Starship I imagine this is just beyond their ability.

Replicators also require undifferentiated molecular goop to "transport" and "reconfigure" into the output. (The Next Generation Technical Manual) We can easily extract bits of metal, but I imagine the expenses of producing massive amounts of goop which just turn back into metal would be a bit silly.

Finally, to inject a bit of future politics, in Star Trek, Humans don't work for a living. They do things to better themselves or whatever (see Jake Sisko). While "the wealthy" with military careers and replicators can spend their days writing news stories, I imagine even the Federation has to find jobs for billions of people to keep the economy working. I imagine some of the starship construction is "makework" to keep people busy. They COULD replicate entire sections that could just be welded together, but if you've got 100,000,000 unemployed humans you need to find jobs for them. Why not utilize that resource while saving money on replicator goop and storage space in the computers to replicate subsystems instead of entire ships?

  • While your answer is technically correct and pretty nice explains, why they can't replicate entire ship, I think you miss the point in my question. I'm asking, why robots aren't used to aid humans in construction of big ships, not about replacing them. I can't believe, that I've just watched seven seasons of 24-th century story and hardly seen any robot doing anything instead of human. There were some examples for sure, but not that much as I would expect.
    – trejder
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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