For engineers new to PCB design, the term ‘Gerber files’ will quickly become a part of their everyday vernacular. And as such, it’s a topic we’ve covered frequently and will cover again today by going straight to the source via interviews with our friends from Ucamco, the Belgium-based company who owns and maintains the Gerber standard. But before we get to that let’s start with a quick introduction.
Containing data on copper layers, solder mask, legend and, and more, Gerber files are the de facto standard file format used by PCB manufacturers to fabricate printed circuit boards. In other words, they are the blueprints that the architect (PCB designer) will hand to the home builder (PCB manufacturer). The file format was originally developed by the Gerber Systems Corp., hence the name. Through acquisition, Ucamco eventually received ownership of the Gerber file format and now maintains the standard – more details on the acquisition can be found here.
Bay Area Circuits utilizes Ucamco’s Ucam and Integr8tor software and we recently had an opportunity to pose some questions to Karel Tavernier, Managing Director at Ucamco, and Luc Maesen, Partner at Ucamco USA to learn more about Gerber and its future direction.
Do all PCB design software tools follow the Gerber export format?
Luc Maesen: In general the answer to this question is yes, however there are always exceptions. Some design software created their export format more than 10 years ago and have not updated since so their implementation is less then optimal. Some also do not follow best practices such as using the structure provided to create copper areas rather than paint them with thousands of lines.
Ucamco distributes CAM software tools called Ucam and Integr8tor. Since Ucamco also owns the Gerber standard are there advantages to PCB manufacturers who use Ucam or Integr8tor for PCB design review?
Luc Maesen: Actually, it is because of Ucam that we know what users have been (and some still are) doing with Gerber and that has actually allowed Ucamco to clarify the format description over the years to eliminate interpretation.The format has been extended with attributes to form Gerber X2. Naturally the Ucam and Integr8tor products handle all aspects of Gerber X2, however it is important to mention that X2 is backwards-compatible. Anyone with valid Gerber X1 software can handle X2. Of course, with X1 software one receives no benefits from the attributes. Further extensions are planned, and, like before, Ucamco has invited the industry to comment.
Gerber is an open format, with no licensing fees or no secret handshakes required to get it hence anyone can take advantage of the format. So where Gerber is concerned it is all about making sure everyone out there uses all the abilities the format offers and to provide education when it is used incorrectly or inefficiently. No secret agenda here.
How well has the new Gerber X2 format been adopted by PCB design software vendors?
Karl Tavernier: Rather well. We have reviewed and accepted X2 output from KiCad, Pulsonix, Easy-PC, Diptrace (beta) and Altium.
Karel Tavernier: X2 is compatible. Anyone with Gerber X1 software can handle X2. Of course, with X1 software one will get no benefits from the attributes. Attributes are used by CAM software from Ucamco, Graphicode, LPKF and possibly others.
Karel Tavernier: It is the beginning. In our installed base about 2.5% of fabrication data is X2. It will no doubt increase when manufacturers ask for it.
Have any problems with the Gerber X2 format been discovered?
Karel Tavernier: No. It is compatible, the image part does not change, so no problems.
What’s next for Gerber X2 format?
Karel Tavernier: On our website we now have a draft extension for the ‘nested step and repeat’ for review by the Gerber community. This is mainly for defining panels efficiently, it is not so important for CAD-to-CAM, more inside manufacturing. Next step will depend on the requests we receive.
In summary, PCB design engineers will save considerable time and expense by maintaining a solid understanding of the Gerber file format.