The Internet of Things (IoT) is already impacting and changing the global manufacturing landscape. On Thursday January 18, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection held a hearing as part of their Disrupter Series on IoT, Manufacturing and Innovation. Specifically, the Committee heard testimony from Rodney Masney, Vice President, Technology Service Delivery, Information Technology, Owens-Illinois, Inc.; Thomas Bianculli, Chief Technology Officer, Zebra Technologies Corporation; Dr. Thomas Kurfess, Professor and HUSCO/Ramirez Distinguished Chair in Fluid Power and Motion Control Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Sanjay Poonen, Chief Operating Officer, VMware, Inc.

Each of the witnesses addressed how the information that is collected through IoT technology can help manufacturers on the ground across various manufacturing jobs. This data leads to more effective and efficient output which in turn enhances competition in the market. Further, this improvement of manufacturing performance also leads to reduced costs, increased quality of goods, and more production overall. For example, Dr. Kurfess talked about the ability of IoT to monitor and improve overall work production of thousands of machines for simple tasks such as checking oil levels in a machine. Mr. Bianculli noted that his company, Zebra has already seen benefits, including more awareness of the entirety of the manufacturing process; increased speed in which there is the ability to identify areas of failure; and an escalation in the overall speed of shipping and receiving products. Mr. Masney discussed the energy management and predictive maintenance capabilities that IoT provides. In his glass manufacturing company, the development of sensor technology will help the glass containers continue to be sustainable while reducing the energy used to melt and form the glass. Further, the development of such sensor technology can likely transform the way equipment is updated and maintained as well as improve workplace safety.

Both the Representatives and witnesses called attention potential cybersecurity and privacy issues associated with IoT. Mr. Pooten noted that there is an increase in the frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks, both in the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, he noted that cybersecurity needs to become a priority when developing and implementing these technologies, as it is likely that manufacturing plants will not only use devices and equipment from a single technology manufacturer, which increases the difficulty in managing cybersecurity across different interfaces. Mr. Pooten suggested cyber hygiene principles that everyone using IoT devices should employ, including:  only giving access to those who truly need it, micro-segmentation encryption, multi-factor authentication, and patching.

Although IoT has the potential to transform the manufacturing industry, it is not without costs. The actual monetary cost to deploy IoT technology can be quite steep, notwithstanding the cost of implementing cybersecurity standards to guard against potential disruptions and threats. Additionally, education is a critical aspect to the deployment of IoT. The economy lacks workers capable of not only developing IoT technology, but also implementing and using it. There will need to be a commitment to retraining and lifelong learning for IoT to truly become useful and successful. Moreover, witnesses stressed that education needs to start at the kindergarten level.

The witnesses also called on Congress to aid in making IoT technologies more accessible by making them more affordable, creating resources to address cybersecurity, investing in research of IoT data science, opening up more commercial licensed and unlicensed spectrum, and allowing for access to broadband. Both the Representatives and witnesses stressed the need for a long term strategic plan to prepare the workforce for the future that IoT will bring. Additionally, many Representatives—while praising the capabilities that IoT holds and the efficiency it may bring—also expressed concern about the technology replacing jobs. Mr. Bianculli responded that jobs are not being taken away, but rather, IoT technology is changing the way in which jobs are done by improving productivity. For example, goods in a warehouse will be taken to a picker in the future, instead of that picker walking and having to find the goods. This simple change decreases the turnaround time on orders and allows for more products to be shipped. Across industries, more mundane tasks can now be done more economically.

IoT is critical to future economic and workforce development in the United States. For the U.S. to stay at the forefront of IoT implementation, Congress needs to invest in education and accessibility. It is crucial to implement cybersecurity standards across the board and to establish a long term plan for the integration of IoT technologies.

Hilary Rosenthal is a legal intern at CCIA and a J.D. candidate at American University Washington College of Law.

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