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.

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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

3 thoughts on “Trading Places

  1. We are basically talking about layered 2d graphics plus netlist file format. If nobody can agree on a standard yet its because they don’t want to. All electronic design software goes to great lengths to lock you in and even GNU projects geda and kicad cannot work together. A particularly nasty culprit is Pcb123 which works only on their proprietary format and does not export gerber or anything else so that you can ONLY order your pcb thru them.

    You didn’t mention the Specctra .dsn format which would be a good standard everyone can follow. Maybe you did and its just called something else.

  2. @Josh: “All electronic design software goes to great lengths to lock you in.”


    For years CAD tool vendors paid lip service to the notion of an open standard, and the reason for that is because if the tools actually accepted data in, the vendors were worried that designers would migrate to different tools. So they would sit in the committees and talk about how they would support openness “if their customers asked them to,” and then behind the scenes do everything they could to retard the process. That’s why it’s so significant now that CAD vendors are actively driving the IPC process — that’s a complete 180 from the past 20 years or so.

    You’re also right that an open standard shouldn’t be so complicated to attain, although I would say making sure a single format works with all the primary tools out there does require some attention to detail.

    As far as I know, Cadence never pushed .dsn as a common format, but it would probably fall under the above reasoning — none of their competitors would have accepted it.

  3. I think the finger points squarely at Mentor and Cadence (again) as those who have held back the industry for decades. This is not just limited to their corporate paranoia though. The period in the late nineties which saw them buying EDA technology companies by the handful killed any spirit of collaboration and any opportunity for true standardisation.

    The IPC approach of design by committee is also flawed, especially if the committees are tainted by those who have held us back.

    We should not forget that schematic to schematic migration is often more troublesome than PCB to PCB these days, so any new format must accommodate the design capture aspect.

    In my 20+ years involved in EDA however, the answer to all of these migration issues is “Why do you want to do it?”. I know it seems flippant but in 90% of times I have been asked can you migrate from X to Y, the main reason is the contentment of knowing you’re not abandoning your comfy old pair of slippers.

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