Easily Export Native Designs or other EDA File Formats with Altium’s PCB-to-Gerber Converter Functionality

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: October 5, 2020

If you want to turn your ideas into reality, every PCB design needs to be manufacturable at scale. Unless you’re planning to etch the board and mount components yourself, this requires creating a design file package that a CM can use for fabrication. Moving from PCB design to PCB manufacturing may seem like a significant challenge, but your design software will be there to help.

With the right PCB design software, you can generate the Gerber files your manufacturer needs to accurately produce your board and help bring your next product to market. Altium Designer offers tools that easily integrate your design tools and data with your deliverable generation tools, helping you move to manufacturing quickly and easily. Altium’s PCB-to-Gerber converter will even convert the file formats of most other EDA or ECAD tools, providing you with maximum flexibility to choose your PCB manufacturer.

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The industry’s most comprehensive PCB design software with flexible PCB-to-Gerber converter capability.

Preferred PCB design file formats vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Unfortunately, all CMs are not created equal and PCB designers are better served when they are able to partner with the best CM for their specific needs. To accommodate this flexibility to select a board fabrication and PCB assembly service, virtually all CMs use design files in Gerber format. This de-facto standard file is not your only option for exporting design data; there are alternatives to Gerber RS-274X, which is arguably the most popular assembly file format.

Alternatives to Gerber RS-274X

There are three Gerber file extensions, one of which is obsolete. The latest format is the Gerber X2 format, which is preceded by the popular RS-274X format, and the obsolete RS-274-D format. The Gerber X2 format contains layer stackup information, which was not contained in previous Gerber file format versions.

Gerber RS-274X is the defacto standard format for printed circuit board design software. It’s utilized for fabricating about 90% of all PCBs designed today worldwide. Yet despite its popularity, Gerber comes with a number of practical limitations, which can lead to a variety of problems throughout the fabrication process. The open standards Gerber X2 and IPC-2581 were developed to address the problems inherent in RS-274X. What can X2 and IPC-2581 do that RS-274X can’t? Let’s take a closer look at these formats, in order to understand the advantages they provide over the industry standard RS-274X format.

Gerber X2

The Gerber X2 comes from an expanded version of GerberX format, which now includes design data, in addition to layout image data. Whereas previously, board layer order and stackup information had to be manually interpreted and verified, now this data is included within the X2 fabrication files. Also included within the X2 fabrication files is a set of drill files detailing the drill size, location, plated/non-plated, and layer span. This format is backwards compatible, meaning it can still be used with single layer or two-layer boards.

Altium Designer Gerber X2 export and alternatives to Gerber RS-274X

Gerber X2 output for a multilayer PCB.

IPC-2581

The IPC-2581 standard was initiated, developed, and driven by contributors from a wide range of PCB industry segments, such as OEMs, PCB Fabricators, and Contract Manufactures, as well as MES, PLM and CAD/CAM vendors. In addition to graphical image data, IPC-2581 goes above and beyond to consolidate all aspects of a design, from layer stackup and materials, to assembly and test details, into a single data format, contained in a single file.

In addition to generating a complete set of fabrication data, IPC-2581 also generates assembly data. The Pick & Place information can specify a location in X/Y and Z locations, as well as component polarity and rotation. This enables support not only for embedded components, but for stacked components as well. In addition, IPC-2581 supports netlist and testpoint data generation, to facilitate in-circuit, functional, or JTAG testing.

Generating Gerber Files and Alternatives

There are a number of utilities for generating Gerber files or alternatives to Gerber RS-274X. If your design software includes a PCB-to-Gerber converter, you won’t have to use a Gerber-to-GCode converter or an open source tool like Gerbv. Any PCB-to-Gerber converter should allow you to export to the RS-274X and X2 formats. IPC-2581 is the other standard format, and your design software should export to this format if desired.

With successively more devices being fabricated on multilayer PCBs, your design software should interface with a deliverable generation tool that creates Gerber X2 files. Altium Designer provides you with comprehensive tools to quickly generate Gerber or IPC-2581 files directly from your PCB layout. You can also generate other standard deliverables in a variety of file formats for your manufacturer.

Screenshot showing fabrication outputs in Altium Designer

Generating fabrication outputs in Altium Designer

Finishing Your Circuit Board and Preparing for Manufacturing

Once you’ve finished your circuit board layout, your manufacturer needs a number of deliverables to fabricate and assemble your PCB. Aside from Gerber file formats that show fabrication steps for each layer in your board, you’ll need to create a bill of materials that includes sourcing information for your components. You’ll also need to generate finalized drafts as CAD files and Excellon drill files.

Generating Documentation in Your PCB Design Software

Powerful PCB design platforms can take your design data and generate important manufacturer deliverables for you. These deliverables are generated in a standardized format, including standard Gerber and IPC-2581 formats. You shouldn’t need to use an external computer-aided design platform or PCB-to-Gerber converter to create alternatives to Gerber RS-274X. You can access these functions and much more in Altium Designer.

Screenshot showing fabrication outputs in Altium Designer

Generating fabrication outputs in Altium Designer

Generate PCB Design Output Files with Altium’s PCB-to-Gerber Converter

Since the release of RS-274X in 1980, this second Gerber file format has served as the “de facto” PCB file standard that most manufacturers accept. However, the quality of your Gerber file output is directly related to the process and tools used to create it. Don’t trust your PCB assembly and PCB manufacturing to any Gerber file format, trust in Altium Designer’s circuit board layout software to move your design from schematic capture to PCB manufacturing.

When you work in Altium Designer’s unified computer-aided design environment, you won’t have to resort to an external PCB-to-Gerber converter, GCode files, or an open-source application like Gerbv. Everything from your solder mask to pad stacks is accurately exported to Gerber or IPC-2581 file formats with Altium Designer.

PCB-to-Gerber Converter or IPC-2581 Export with Altium Designer

Altium Designer includes a PCB to Gerber converter for standard RS-274X and X2 formats. Support for IPC-2581 Rev A and Rev B files can be created using the IPC2581 Extension. With Altium Designer, you can create and export your PCB layout and assembly data in these and other standard formats, and you can import native file formats from other EDA tools. You can then modify and export your design using the PCB-to-Gerber converter. You can also export design data in other file formats that are preferred by different manufacturers.

Whether you want to use the standard Gerber format or alternatives to RS-274X, you can customize your PCB-to-Gerber converter output files to meet your CM’s capability. As with the other capabilities and functionality of Altium Designer, there are multiple options that allow the designer to customize their PCB design experience. The rules-driven design engine integrates your design and documentation features into a single platform. No other design platform makes documentation generation this easy. Accessing the PCB-to-Gerber converter tools and IPC-2581 file export feature are easy tasks in Altium Designer.

Altium Designer on Altium 365 delivers an unprecedented amount of integration to the electronics industry until now relegated to the world of software development, allowing designers to work from home and reach unprecedented levels of efficiency.

We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Designer on Altium 365. You can check the product page for a more in-depth feature description or one of the On-Demand Webinars.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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