SAN MATEO, Calif. The long feud between the IPC packaging-industry institute and Valor Computerized Systems Inc. over which organization's CAD-to-CAM data transfer format should become the industry standard seems to be headed toward a peaceful resolution.
Officials from IPC and Valor were brought together on Intel Corp.'s Santa Clara, Calif., campus by the National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (NEMI) trade group this week (Oct. 17) to hammer out terms for merging IPC's GenCAM and Valor's ODB++ into a single standard for sharing data between printed-circuit-board design and manufacturing.
"What is happening is monumental," said Chuck Feingold, president of Valor (Lake Forest, Calif.). "NEMI has for several months been trying to create a convergence between ODB++ and GenCAM. In Tuesday's meeting and under NEMI's guidance, [IPC and Valor] agreed to work toward a common denominator that will have the best of both worlds."
Industry observers say a new format could likely feature XML-compliant ODB++ with GenCAM test and assembly extensions added on; GenCAM with XML, ODB++ and manufacturing added on; or even a third solution.
If the effort doesn't hit any major snags, EDA companies by early 2001 will be able to supply design data to diverse pc-board manufacturers using a single standard format, simplifying communication between groups on either side of the CAD/CAM wall and saving the industry money.
"It means that design [teams] and manufacturers don't have to throw things over the wall any longer they can share it through the wall," said Daya Nadamuni, senior analyst for Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.). Nadamuni said that in the past, if people in manufacturing found mistakes in a design they would send it back to the design side.
"The problem was that those groups didn't share a single data format," she said. "They used Gerber and a number of assorted output files for drilling, routes, process, etc. If successful, [the new standard] should end all that confusion, put all that information into one file and streamline CAD/CAM communications immensely."
Industry pundits cautioned, however, that the Santa Clara meeting marks only a step in the right direction, not a slam-dunk. Some fear the discussions could revert back to the "friendly rivalry" that's been going on for roughly three years between Valor and IPC (Valor's Feingold and IPC director Dieter Bergman are old fishing pals).
In the beginning, IPC, based in Chicago, was considering two candidates for the CAD-to-CAM standard: the GenCAM format from GenRAD Corp. and the Electronic Design Interchange Format (EDIF).
Eventually, the institute picked GenCAM, but not without criticism especially from EDA vendors for its inability to release a specification and leave it alone long enough for design-automation companies to build tools that generate outputs in line with the specification.
It was out of frustration that three years ago Valor, which offers CAD/CAM bridging tools, gave up its seat on the IPC's data transfer committee and developed and released in a matter of months its own ODB++ (Open Data Base) format. ODB++ has since become the industry's de facto standard, boasting more than 1,000 users.
The spec's Achilles' heel, however, is that it is owned by a public company rather than a standards body, raising fears that the format could disappear if Valor were acquired.
That's why NEMI stepped in to broker a compromise.
"We in the NEMI virtual-factory project are excited to have initiated this new effort in an industry that needs to have a single standard," said Barbara Goldstein, on loan from the National Institute of Standards in Technology to serve as co-chair of NEMI's virtual-factory information interchange project. "We are pushing this forward and have set an aggressive schedule. We think we have the right parties at the table to make it happen."
Goldstein said NEMI is planning to form a technical committee and a convergence management committee to aid the integration efforts, and hopes to release the first version within four months. Although details have not been ironed out, the IPC is expected to go through the process of making the format a formal standard even as the NEMI committees are creating the specification. "This should speed the standardization process," said Goldstein.
"The structure and the meat still need to be put into it and the process needs to be defined, but we feel this can be done in the right way," said Valor's Feingold. He defended the IPC, saying the organization has been slow in moving because it lacks software engineers. "They have a great bunch of people, they have just been understaffed," he said.
Word of the tentative agreement drew cautious praise last week from the EDA vendor community, which has kept an eye on this ongoing feud for many years.
"We applaud NEMI's efforts to get the ball rolling," said Keith Felton, director of product marketing for Cadence Design Systems' PCB Systems Division. "For years we have been waiting for someone to just pick one format and stick with it. I think this effort could be great, especially if they use the best features from both formats and everyone signs on to support it."
"This initiative to solve the problem of conflicting formats is a commendable step in the right direction," said Henry Potts, vice president and general manager of Mentor Graphics Corp.'s System Design Division. "Our position on data exchange from the Mentor pc-board tools is driven by the fact that most of our customers are using or want to use ODB++, and another selection of customers wants us to implement a GenCAM interface."
As a result, Potts said, Mentor recently made "the major decision to implement ODB++ as our first standard manufacturing interface from both the Board Station and Expedition series of products." The company plans "to continue our development efforts and deliver GenCAM early in 2001. Supporting multiple formats is something which we have always done and will continue to do until and unless the industry selects one format standard that has universal support."
"We are members of the ODB++ Alliance and the IPC, and are committed to supporting both of the formats," said Jeff Miller, director of product marketing for manufacturing solutions at Innoveda. "We currently support both efforts so it should put us in a good position if [the two are combined]."
Feingold said it will be vital to the success of the new effort for everyone involved in the CAD-CAM flow to sign an agreement to use the standard. He said that Valor, along with other companies, will have to adjust tools to comply with the new format, whatever it may be.
"At the end of the day, I don't think that we will need to do too much selling to the industry," Feingold said. "Mentor, Cadence, Zuken and Innoveda are all signed up to ODB++, so we really have removed many of those barriers that have hindered standards in the past."
See our sister publication's related story, Which Data Transfer Format is Best for the Industry?, for more information.