Talk Isn’t Cheap

Communicating is hard. It took thousands of years just for man to develop a common language. I don’t suppose, then, even in our “enlightened” state, we should expect it to be easy to develop a common, complete method for describing all the myriad features of a printed circuit board.

This week at PCB West, the Silicon Valley annual trade show, a special panel will convene to address just that decades-old issue. (Disclosure: I’m the moderator.) I don’t expect the group to solve all the industry’s data problems in just 90 minutes, but I do think a few key aspects will be noted.

Here’s a question I plan to raise: Would the problem of unintelligent data files be essentially resolved if the initial cost to upgrade were lower?

Upstream, Intel, for example, sends an army of engineers to its suppliers to help them implement new processes. Few companies have the resources of Intel, of course. No fabricator does. And this leaves the fabs in a bind: They know that Gerber is insufficient, and spend countless hours massaging (often without their customer’s knowledge) the bad or incomplete data received from design. But with tooling jobs stacking up on their desks, and margins cut to the bone, they claim no resources to spend on implementing one of the richer data transfer formats like ODB++ or IPC-2581.

So who pays?

Neither IPC nor Valor make any money directly from their respective data transfer formats, so it’s unlikely either would see the value in extending themselves further by underwriting the onsite development and implementation work. (Whether they should anyway is a column for another day.) Designers tend to be risk-averse: They are unlikely to risk their jobs on something upper management is not mandating. Thus, it may be that the fabricators need to start assigning a CAM engineer to its key customers — perhaps one at a time, to keep costs down — to help them get up and running — no matter which rich format they choose.

The argument for switching to a superior format(s) is that manufacturers will save money down the road. I understand, however, that quantifying the cost savings is exceedingly difficult. Moreover, as one CAD developer told me, there’s an unwritten incentive for the status quo (read: Gerber) because manufacturers don’t want to appear inflexible.

I would argue that the industry’s margins can’t afford to keep sending bad data downstream and hoping for a miracle in return. Fabricators over the past decade have lost most of their influence over the printed circuit board development. This is an area where they can truly coach their customers — and add value in the process. They should grab it.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association ( He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

2 thoughts on “Talk Isn’t Cheap

  1. Man has a common language? really?

    Kidding aside, It is still unclear to me how a “smarter” data format will eliminate the CAM engineer (reviewing/modifying customer’s design to better match their processes or a lack of knowledge on manufacturing by the customer)

    Often the board house is dealing with data from a novice engineer… that really doesn’t understand what he/she needs to specify to others.

    A smart format doesn’t eliminate bad data(graphic/BOM/pick and place/ soldermask sizing/ etc…) going down stream.
    I don’t see how it even reduces bad data.
    (unless someone is using a system that requires hand re-entry of data to downstream systems! that is just crazy!)

    Please explain what I am missing.

  2. Well, if you consider that we started out muttering in grunts and coughs, yes, we have a common language today. Even if we don’t use it all the time!

    I don’t know that anyone thinks a better format would eliminate the CAM engineer. But there is clearly consensus that today’s process has the fabricator receiving the artwork, drill, and netlist info electronically, but no matter whether that info is provided via Gerber, ODB++ or any other standard, the data are still relatively minimal and require massaging and back-and-forth with the designers. Reducing all that back-and-forth would cut down on time (cost) and potential errors.

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