The Data Format Effect on Business Costs


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Nolan Johnson and Barry Matties talked with Axiom’s Rob Rowland and Kevin Bennett about current challenges facing EMS manufacturing. During this conversation, the pair discuss the impact of data file formats on pricing, manufacturing, and quality.

Barry Matties: Does it matter what the data format is or the data coming in?

Rob Rowland: Yes, absolutely. There are three formats we usually get from our customers: Gerber, ODB++, and IPC-2581.

Kevin Bennett: The ideal formats would be IPC-2581 or ODB++ because everything needed for programming is within one file. It only takes a couple of clicks to import those file types. The next step is to merge the bill of materials, and from that point you’re pretty much ready to export that data to the machine you’re going to program it on. But when it comes to Gerber data, which is unintelligent data, much more manual manipulation is required to get it to the same point as importing a comprehensive CAD file, like an ODB++. Gerber makes for a labor-intensive manual process. Basically, you draw a box over any given component footprint and then you must type the reference designator for each location. The extra steps make a huge difference in the time required to complete the offline programming.

Nolan Johnson: How much influence do you have over the file format your customers provide you?

Rowland: In general, we don’t have a lot of influence. Many years ago, we put together a document that articulates the differences between the three file formats and highlights the fact that we really need to get ODB++ or IPC-2581 file formats for programming. Over the years, we’ve tried to educate our customers on the extra programming effort to accurately and efficiently get the file formats right. Our customers try to accommodate our request and most of the time we get ODB++ or IPC-2581 files. 

In our business, we also build boards that were designed 15 or 20 years ago and all they have are the Gerber files. As Kevin mentioned, when we do those, which might be 10% of the time, it takes Kevin and our other programmer three to four times longer to program a board with Gerber than it would if we had received either of the other two file formats.

Matties: Does your pricing change based on file format?

Rowland: Yes. If we get Gerber, we try to cover the additional cost. Programming is not an area we try to make a profit on, but we need to be able to cover our cost. If it takes us three to four times longer with a Gerber file, we need to cover the expense that we incur in doing that.

Matties: Do the customers realize that they would save money by changing the file format?

Rowland: Yes, if they’re able to, that is. We have some boards that are so old all they have are Gerber files. We work with what they have available to them. One of our engineers was on the original IPC-2581 committee and is an expert with that file format. He helped some of our customers understand the 2581 format and we showed their design groups how to output the 2581 file format.

Matties: Ultimately, it simplifies your customer’s life as well with fewer questions on the back end and so on.

Rowland: Yes, absolutely. If they give us what we need, then we don’t call them as many times, if at all, because we have what we need vs. having a lot of questions because the file format isn’t very good.

Matties: When we did a survey, Gerber was by far the one people are using most often. They’re familiar with it and there’s no significant penalty to keep using it or changing.

Rowland: Yes, I agree with you. In some cases, people don’t understand there are better file formats for programming than Gerber. Gerber files are best suited for PCB fabrication; this format was never intended for programming SMT machines. That’s why we work with our customers and try to educate them as much as we can so that we get the preferred file formats. 

To read this entire conversation, which appeared in the May 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine, click here.

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