Intelligent Design

In my monthly column for PCD&F last month, I was ostensibly discussing standards and how they come to be. The first standard I worked on was IPC-D-350, one of the first of the would-be slayers of Gerber, the so-called unintelligent data format. Indeed, I’ve spent a good part of my life watching electronic data transfer formats come and go, and at the end of the day, Gerber, warts and all, has remained the one to beat. So I’m not prepared to rise up and shout to the heavens that IPC-2581, the latest iteration in 40 years’ worth of attempts at an “industry” standard, is at long last the answer.

But as we noted in “Around the World
,” there are enough notable differences in the process this time around to make it newsworthy. First and foremost, there are real live CAD tool vendors not just showing up at the meetings, but actively participating (!).

To understand why this is significant, we must go back to my IPC-D-350 days. Digital Equipment and the late, great Harry Parkinson were instrumental in trying to revive interest, and we at IPC also had support from several smaller software folks like Dino Ditta at Router Solutions and Steve Klare at Intercept Technology. But we never managed to break through, and a big part of the problem was the major CAD vendors’ collective refusal to offer IPC-D-350 as an output (or input). The response always was, “We’ll do it if our customers ask us.” But what they were really saying was, “We don’t want to make it easy for our customers to migrate their designs to a competitor’s tools.”

In the meantime, AT&T offered up RS-274X (aka extended Gerber), which UCamco continues to support, and Valor developed ODB++, and (like Gerber) while it was originally conceived as much a machine language as a format for electronic design data, it was accepted by fabricators desperate for something, anything, more intelligent than Gerber.

Under the leadership of Dieter Bergman, IPC also continued the fight, enlisting the help of the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST) through not one but two (GenCAM, Offspring) successors to IPC-D-350. (For a short history of the standards, click here.) Yet even now, after decades of trying, no group has been able to dismount Gerber from its perch, and it’s long past time we did. Data transfer formats are not something anyone ever will make money from, but every day we go without a better one, everyone will lose some.

Curiously, just a few weeks ago, I was contacted by David Gerber, son of H. Joseph Gerber, who invented the photoplotter and the eponymously named de facto standard that ran it. Gerber’s genius cut across many industries, from electronics to apparel, and he was awarded the 1994 National Medal of Technology for his life’s work.

For such an esteemed inventor, Gerber’s backstory is even more interesting than his career. As a teenager in 1940, he fled Nazi Germany for America. As an aeronautical engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he discovered a way to reduce the time-consuming nature of graphing calculus problems using (seriously) an “expandable ruler” created from the elastic waistband of his pajamas. And of course, he formed The Gerber Scientific Instrument Co. in 1948, which is still going strong today.

The younger Gerber is writing a book about his father’s exploits. I look forward to learning more about the life of one of our industry’s true unsung heroes. But at the same time, I’m going to do everything I can to help retire one of his legacies.

In our cover story this month, Hemant Shah and Keith Felton of Cadence explain a new consortium taking root. The consortium is backed by a Who’s Who of OEMs and EDA vendors, including Harris, Ericsson, Fujitsu, nVidia, Sanmina-SCI, Cadence, Zuken, Adiva and Downstream Technologies. Its goal is to accelerate the adoption of IPC-2581 as an open, neutrally maintained global standard to encourage innovation, improve efficiency and reduce costs. The members are committed to adopting IPC-2581, which as I noted gives this latest effort a big leg up on all previous attempts.

Where does UP Media Group stand on this? For 20 years, we have supported the development of an intelligent, robust format for electronics data transfer. As such, we fully support the consortium’s effort to ensure a viable, supported and independent data transfer format that is driven by user needs.

That new task group attempting to update IPC-2581 recognizes that design needs will at some point “break” Gerber. Many of the players are new to the game, and a lot of the old rivalries appear to have died off due to retirements and, well, death. That’s good, because the industry needs a better standard than Gerber. Thanks in part to his son, Joseph Gerber’s name and many contributions will hopefully never be forgotten. But it’s time his namesake data format is.