Why Do We Need a Neutral File Format?

6 January, 2019

Sharing models with different toolsets is a well-known, costly industry problem. At Future Facilities, we led the movement, in collaboration with Intel and Motorola Mobility, to establish a vendor-neutral file format, the open ECXML file format, and eliminate the problem altogether.

For almost 40 years, engineers have been sharing CAD data with their peers using vendor-neutral file formats. In 1980, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) published the IGES format, which facilitated the sharing of CAD between engineers using different design tools. Fast forward to today, and CAD can be exchanged and distributed throughout the supply chain with unparalleled ease. This has not been the case for data exchange in the Thermal Simulation world.

Typically, component manufacturers such as Intel provide CFD models of components to their customers. This practice is challenging and inefficient, often requiring component manufactures to develop, validate and support three or more native formats. This challenge is not limited to component manufacturers; any company who builds equipment that is then supplied to third parties for use in a larger system may be expected to provide thermal models. From a customer perspective, this process can be equally frustrating. Nobody wants to ask for a thermal model from a supplier only to find out that it can’t be provided in the format you need.

Through our close work with Intel, we have seen first-hand the struggle of maintaining multiple thermal models of the same product. This gave us an idea: surely the industry would be better served if there was a vendor-neutral file format? We pitched this idea to our contacts in the industry and received an overwhelmingly positive response. In 2015, we began working with Intel and Motorola to define what data such a file should contain, and this information was published by Intel in early 2018. Subsequently, we co-hosted a meeting where Intel announced that they would only release thermal models in the neutral file format. Shortly thereafter, Mentor Graphics and Ansys joined the initiative. The net result of this is the adoption of the open ECXML file format.

ECXML allows a selection of objects – along with material properties and environment settings - to be imported and exported as non-rotated cuboids or cylinders (or their 2D forms). Objects that can be imported/exported include PCBs, solids, heatsinks, fans, 2R components, chassis, sub-assemblies, heat sources, vents and porous obstructions. In the future, we hope to see the format extended to include more objects and more complex geometries.

ECXML functionality is available in Release 13 SP3, which can be downloaded from the User Support Forum. Once installed, you should see an ‘ECXML’ button on the import and export ribbons. To import, open a new model, click the ECXML button on the Import ribbon, then select the desired file. To export, build your model and then click the ECXML button on the Export ribbon.

The ECXML format represents the first step towards standardization across the electronics thermal simulation field. Over time, this format can be improved with the addition of more complex geometries, additional objects and a wider selection of environment settings. Additionally, the plan is to form JEDEC sub-committee that will take responsibility for maintaining and the growing the scope of the NFF.

Blog written by: Matt Evans, Product Engineer & Akhil Docca, Director of Marketing