you are correct the engineer is the superstar of the modern world and sadly no one excpet us knows about the impacts we have from advanced medical technologies CT, MRI. To chemical engineers who allow modrn drugs to be mass produced Aerospace (how many people take flying safely for granted), Information Technology these two alone have made the world much smaller place. Then we have the utilities power, gas and water always present when we demand them.
Engineers truly created the world more so than any other profresssion I would argue.
A big benefit of using digital circuit designs (rather than a PDF image of a design) is that when new technologies develop - such as narrower traces or components that replace a portion of the circuit - the circuit could be automatically redrawn and compacted from the digital file.
Your primary point in terms of the accomplishments of the hardware engineering community (Note this) is certainly valid. Electronic systems have certainly progressed rapidly and provided the basis for any number of advances in modern society. I would have backed it up a bit to at least the development of radio and TV myself, which have molded modern society in many ways.
On the other hand, this has not occurred in a vacuum. The software disciplines that you say are "...admittedly less complex" have moved from being a rarefied specialty to becoming a sophisticated and very complex industry to help users do useful things with the electronics you create. In fact, the Web (or, more correctly, the Internet) is generally considered to be the most complex engineering artifact created by mankind to date. From one point of view it is a collection of hardware devices, but it is also a triumph of software engineering. It is also an excellent combination of free enterprise and governmental support.
As to your secondary point about design interchange, it might be worth looking at some software innovations. Much work has been done in terms of defining design patterns, where specific solutions have been classified and analyzed to promote consistency on how they are handled. There are also significant repositories of code that are being created in open source domains such as SourceForge which can be of tremendous help. Recently this is starting to happen with significant hardware designs as well, which is probably a very good sign for the continuance of innovation in electronics.
As I said, there are very good reasons for pride. Be careful, though, that it doesn't become hubris.
"a Gerber file. Is this the best the industry and professionals who collectively all but created the Digital Revolution can put forth?"
Speaking as one who's pretty close to the venerable Gerber file on a day to day basis, I could rant on the evils of the Gerber format. And, I know a few other people who could significantly out-rant me on that subject.
There is some hope though. ODB++ (a somewhat-standard CAD data format) is gaining popularity and IPC-2581 (a supposedly even more standard CAD data format) is on the horizon.
Bills of materials are headache near the scale of the Gerber as well. I think there are more BOM styles than there are engineers creating BOMs.
Actually, the point of this piece was not for us to bristle with pride about our chosen profession, but rather that the state of the EDA art is still primitive. Did anyone read past the first paragraph?
But then there's the other piece today about the 3D printing hype. Seems to me that entire PCBs can just about be sent across the Internet, and printed out in whatever size is feasible, by a 3D printer. That ought to be a step beyond the .pdf file, yes?
Why does this article remind me of some similar article in a German eda magazine beginning/mid of the 1990s (this article complained about no advancement in EDA except faster and bigger machines in the decade before, and about ripoff sales tactics in EDA)
As far as I know the "design patterns" used in eda are:
two or more step initialization
having to use a debugger to find out what is failing and why
after 17 years of availability of working c++ exception handling (considerable less for most UNIXs except IBMs) the potential resulting revolution in software quality is still pending (e.g. Google style guide forbids usage)
UNIX problems like
buggy shared library handling (when multithreading is being used)
shared libraries sharing a single namespace scope (fixed recently)
programmer cannot write code using file locking since it may not be available on remote mounted disks
NFS not being deterministic
returning the error code of exec to the original process is quite advanced programming
not existing structured exception handling making writing into sparse files via memory mapped io impossible for complex applications
writing into remote files via memory mapped io causes the server to be busy since there is no notion of exclusive opening
write to a socket or pipe causing a SIGPIPE which has to be blocked in an way which does not assume anything about the calling environment (this SIGPIPE "dramatically" simplifies writing IO filters like grep/awk/sed)
managers in eda not having advanced programming experience
usually positions for programmers are titled as "looking for c/c++ programmers"
usage of dangerous functions from the c library
usage of global/static variables
repeated conversion of identical objects into different formats
usage of fixed sized buffers
manually pairing up code for do/undo actions
manually writing derivative code despite the method to let the C++ compiler do it is known since more than a decade
Duane, the Gerber file is time tested for what it was intended to accomplish. However, from a design process standpoint, Gerber is a late stage output file, focused on fabrication of a board. A reference design on the other hand is a very early stage tool.
Designers need a way to import the available aspects (schematic, PCB, etc.) of the reference design into their preferred EDA environment so that they can add or remove functionality and rapidly prototype. Authors of reference designs need an effective way to publish their designs so that the maximum number of potential users can leverage them in their EDA tools in an uncompromised manner.
I agree that either ODB++ or IPC-2581 looks promising as a standard data exchange foundation for the PCB aspect of a reference design, to the extent that they support early stage design together with licensing terms and ubiquity acceptable to the community.