Robots help some firms, even while workers across industries struggle

This is part 2 of a three-part series examining the effects of robots and automation on employment, based on new research from economist and Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu. 

Overall, adding robots to manufacturing reduces jobs — by more than three per robot, in fact . But a new study co-authored by an MIT professor reveals an important pattern: Firms that move quickly to use robots tend to add workers to their payroll, while industry job losses are more concentrated in firms that make this change more slowly.

The study, by MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, examines the introduction of robots to French manufacturing in recent decades, illuminating the business dynamics and labor implications in granular detail.

“When you look at use of robots at the firm level, it is really interesting because there is an additional dimension,” says Acemoglu. “We know firms are adopting robots in order to reduce their costs, so it is quite plausible that firms adopting robots early are going to expand at the expense of their competitors whose costs are not going down. And that’s exactly what we find.”

Indeed, as the study shows, a 20 percentage point increase in robot use in manufacturing from 2010 to 2015 led to a 3.2 percent decline in industry-wide employment. And yet, for firms adopting robots during that timespan, employee hours worked rose by 10.9 percent, and wages rose modestly as well.

A new paper detailing the study, “Competing with Robots: Firm-Level Evidence from France,” will appear in the May issue of the American Economic Association: Papers and Proceedings . The authors are Acemoglu, who is an Institute Professor at MIT; Clair Lelarge, a senior research economist at the Banque de France and the Center for Economic Policy Research; and Pascual Restrepo Phd ’16, an assistant professor of economics at Boston University.

A French robot census

To conduct the study, the scholars examined 55,390 French manufacturing firms, of which 598 purchased robots during the period from 2010 to 2015. The study uses data provided by France’s Ministry of Industry, client data from French robot suppliers, customs data about imported robots, and firm-level financial data concerning sales, employment, and wages, among other things.

The 598 firms that did purchase robots, while comprising just 1 percent of manufacturing firms, accounted for about 20 percent of manufacturing production during that five-year period.

“Our paper is unique in that we have an almost comprehensive [view] of robot adoption,” Acemoglu says.

The manufacturing industries most heavily adding robots to their production lines in France were pharmaceutical companies, chemicals and plastic manufacturers, food and beverage producers, metal and machinery manufacturers, and automakers.

The industries investing least in robots from 2010 to 2015 included paper and printing, textiles...