Trading Places

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 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 (!).

Going back to my IPC-D-350 days, Digital Equipment and the late, great Harry Parkinson were instrumental in trying to revive interest, and they had support from several smaller software folks like Dino Ditta at Router Solutions and Steve Klare at Intercept. But they never managed to break through, and a big part of the problem was the 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 while it is more of a machine language than a format for electronic design data, it was accepted by fabricators desperate for something, anything more intelligent than Gerber.

A new task group is attempting to update IPC-2581, recognizing 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. It’s not something anyone ever will make any money off of, but every day we go without it, everyone will lose some.