Dana on Data: Time for a Data Format Revolution

“Especially in technology, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.” —Larry Page

What interesting events happened in the 1950s?

  • “I Love Lucy” premiered on CBS (in black and white)
  • Gas was $0.27 per gallon
  • I was born (sorry, I couldn’t resist)
  • The computer modem was developed
  • Gerber data format was created

Starting in the 1950s, the Gerber data format, complemented with several paper and electronic files, was used to transfer the physical PCB data from designers to fabricators and assemblers. RS-274-D and RS-274X gave us incremental improvements to the Gerber format, but still required several additional files to transfer all the data. IPC-D-356 was released in 1992 to provide a data transfer quality check. The 274X format with associated file, are still the most predominant data transfer package in use today, 70+ years later. Hard to believe from the highest technology industry on the planet.

The 1990s and 2000s brought us the ODB++ and IPC-2581 intelligent data formats which dramatically improved the intelligence of the graphical data, reduced transfer errors, and eliminated many additional documents.

The 3D printing and Additive Manufactured Electronics Revolution is Among Us
The industry is in the midst of a revolutionary design and manufacturing change utilizing 3D printing additive manufactured electronics (AME) based technologies. There are many techniques which are tailored to specific applications.

AME-based PCB designs and layouts are not restricted to route traces in the X and Y axes and drill/laser holes to rout in the Z-axis. A trace can now connect through the z-axis without holes. The trace can be the traditional trapezoidal shape, round, a twisted pair, or coaxial. We now have non-planar surfaces and can place or form components on all six sides of a cube. Printed conductive elements can protrude above the traditional flat surface.

Blind vias are currently required to connect into the middle of a BGA pad for the z-axis connection. AME technology just prints the conductive ink into the bottom of the pad without any holes as the structure is built-up.

Material isn’t required to be removed to create the finished board (e.g., panel borders, back drilling, routing). Material is only added where it is required. Traditional layout routing thinks in terms of the number of copper layers with the goal of minimizing layers to reduce cost. 3D or AME technologies have hundreds of layers (called slices) available within the same thickness.

Components are being created inside the board. Discrete capacitors, inductors, and RF components are being created without requiring vias. Placed embedded components will become more common place. Traditional ECAD systems cannot create these 3D shaped components, so designers must create them in a MCAD system and merge the ECAD and MCAD data at the machine.

Now we must contend with mechanical CAD and 2D electrical CAD data along with all the associated e-paper drawings and files that we currently require. We’re going in the wrong direction.

The IC industry transfers design data with a very high accuracy due to the substantial cost and time penalty for making mistakes. The manufacturing companies, design companies, design tools, and CAM tools diligently worked together to create this seamless transfer.

It’s Time for a Data Transfer Revolution
Let’s think out-of-the-box now for the PCB industry. Let’s merge the electrical and mechanical data into one intelligent file. There are very accurate and standardized MCAD file formats, such is STL, SLC, STEP, etc. There is a very robust industry standard intelligent electronics data format, IPC-2581. A proposal was recently made to the IPC-2581 consortium1 to consider merging the MCAD data within IPC-2581 to create a new intelligent revision for this board technology. We need OEMs, MCAD/ECAD companies, manufacturers, and equipment suppliers to support this effort and push back on using Gerber-based data. It will provide a format that will reduce cycle times and improve quality/cost.

Vertically integrated companies may develop proprietary formats optimized for their technology. That is good as competition breeds novel improvements.

The PE/AME industry is ramping up to high volumes over the next few years. There is a staggering amount of innovation occurring. This is an opportune time for the PCB industry to move from multiple data formats to a single high-quality format to support 3D AME technologies. Developing an integrated data format should significantly improve the data transfer quality. Let’s not continue to use a 70-year-old format with this new generation of interconnect.

I loved watching “I Love Lucy” in black and white, but I much more enjoy watching streaming videos on my PC and phone in color. Let the revolution begin.


  1. IPC- 2581 Consortium, ipc2581.com.

Dana Korf is the principal consultant at Korf Consultancy LLC.



Dana on Data: Time for a Data Format Revolution


Starting in the 1950s, the Gerber data format, complemented with several paper and electronic files, was used to transfer the physical PCB data from designers to fabricators and assemblers. RS-274-D and RS-274X gave us incremental improvements to the Gerber format, but still required several additional files to transfer all the data. IPC-D-356 was released in 1992 to provide a data transfer quality check. The 274X format with associated file, are still the most predominant data transfer package in use today, 70+ years later. Hard to believe from the highest technology industry on the planet.

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Dana on Data: A Team Method to Reduce Fabricator Engineering Questions


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New Column—Dana on Data: IPC-2581 Intelligent Bi-directional Data Flow


The IPC Consortium is nearing completion of transferring notes on drawings and working with IPC on converting key IPC specifications into attributes that can be automatically loaded into CAD and CAM systems. This format is extendable to created automated company-specific acceptance files that can be automatically loaded into the CEM’s or fabricator’s engineering systems. IPC-2581 data format is being widely used globally and now needs to become the standard to reduce NPI cycle times by associating critical design information automatically to the physical features.

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