The old proverb “The more things change, the more they stay the same” seems truer than ever. Certainly, the use of technology in the lab is making significant changes to laboratory work processes, but when all is said and done, the goals of the lab remain basically the same. It is how these goals are achieved—particularly through the use of technology—that is driving change in the lab. This article focuses on how technology is changing the lab in the realm of chemical inventory management (CIM).
Trends in technology evolve the lab
Nowadays very little if anything in the lab is more than five years old. From analytical instruments to laboratory software, the tools the lab uses need to be replaced with new tools that leverage the latest technology in order for the lab to stay competitive and compliant. The replacement of paper lab notebooks with personal computers and now with electronic lab notebooks (ELNs), for instance, shows the steady influence of enabling technology in driving change.
When it comes to chemical inventory management, however, many organizations still use spreadsheets to track material in the lab. This is a viable solution when there are a limited number of chemicals to track and manage, but anytime the number reaches the hundreds or thousands of containers, it becomes very difficult to track accurately without chemical inventory management software. The issue goes well beyond logging in material upon receipt, tracking its use, and disposing of the empty container appropriately; many materials require reporting to a wide variety of regulatory agencies concerning exact quantity on site, storage locations, and more. Errors in reporting can have stiff financial consequences. Errors in storage or use can have deadly consequences.
Fortunately, chemical inventory software solutions have matured significantly in recent years. The best systems now offer cloud and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) options as well as mobile solutions. These solutions free up lab resources, making it easy and affordable to automate chemical inventory management workflows and track chemicals in real time.
CIM processes affect mission-critical tasks
Because labs focus on the research being performed, other processes and tasks tend to get less attention. However, there are hundreds of often-intricate inventory management processes that directly affect mission-critical tasks in the lab, e.g., optimizing inventory levels, logistics and deployment, replenishment, disposition, and forecasting.
To ensure there is enough on hand, many labs make the mistake of ordering too much chemical inventory. This is done because chemicals can’t be found when needed and, when found, may be past their expiration date and thus must be thrown away, causing waste and increasing chemical costs. For instance, a recent ChemSW survey discovered that when all the activities associated with chemical inventory management were streamlined with CISPro, organizations enjoyed, on average, an annual financial benefit of $12,900 per laboratory staff user plus $12.50 per container for inventory support.1
A chemical inventory system gets out of control when too many people are ordering or moving materials and not all materials are monitored by a single central system. This also means that lab managers and health and safety officers do not know what chemicals are actually on site or in what quantity. The result is unnecessary, duplicate ordering and high disposal costs—a vicious cycle that can be effectively broken with CIM technology.
Benefits of CIM technology
A robust CIM system benefits the lab in a number of ways, from reducing chemical purchasing costs to streamlining workflows associated with chemicals and other materials necessary for lab processes. In addition, such technology drives safe chemical handling and storage. In particular, CIM technology ensures the availability of current real-time chemical safety and inventory data. Thus a properly deployed CIM solution means that the lab will have chemicals on hand in the quantities required, that those chemicals will be stored in known (and appropriate) locations under threshold limits, and that audit trails can be easily tracked and reported for both internal use and meeting external regulatory requirements.
Further, two key requirements that are often overlooked and that CIM technology addresses seamlessly and transparently are safety and regulatory compliance. CIM technology tackles and automates these two very important challenges.
Technology supports safety and regulatory compliance
Regulations are getting more complex, not less so. It’s not enough to know where chemicals are, provide training and information about correct handling procedures, and ensure that chemicals are stored and disposed of appropriately. Whether it is OSHA substance specific standards or EPCRA Tier II Chemical Inventory Reports or Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) requirements, the lab is required to report to a growing number of regulatory agencies the quantity and type of chemicals on site, as well as how and where they are stored, with the goal of ensuring safety.
Enforcement efforts have been intensified recently for a number of regulations, making report accuracy more important than ever. Fire Code Reporting, for instance, is coming under increased scrutiny. Fire Code Reporting is a local, regional, and national government requirement that addresses Hazardous Material Inventory Statement (HMIS) reporting and requires facilities to meet both International Fire Code (IFC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code requirements. The requirement is simple enough: report the hazardous chemicals that are on site and where they are in the building(s). This is easier said than done; the Fire Code Classifications database contains thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals, so simply identifying all the applicable chemical safety-related requirements that govern any particular work activity with chemicals can be a monumental task.
CIM technology has risen to the challenge. Current, up-to-date safety information concerning chemical inventory—particularly hazardous materials—can be maintained by the chemical inventory system to ensure immediate facility-wide access to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) or in-house handling instructions in the event of an accident. In addition, a CIM system that associates chemicals with the correct MSDS ensures that the right MSDS is on hand at all times—satisfying yet more regulatory requirements. Typically, MSDS are managed by another database system that should provide seamless, transparent access to the MSDS through the CIM solution.
Risk mitigation is an important bonus the lab can expect to derive from safe management of chemical inventory. When the lab manager knows the exact quantity of a material on site and the usage rate, it becomes easy to reduce the quantity of that material on site and, in some cases, drop levels below environmental reporting thresholds. Having fewer environmental reports to complete equates to fewer management tasks, which in turn equates to reduced inventory management costs.
CIM systems come in a wide variety of configurations, from stand-alone, out-of-the-box software to add-on modules for Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) to SaaS and cloud solutions. Regardless of how the solution is configured, best practices have found that the only sustainable system utilizes bar code technology to track materials from receipt to disposal. Utilizing bar codes means that materials are received and logged in the system consistently and correctly, and that bar code labels are attached to the material upon receipt. When the material container is bar-coded, it can be identified wherever it is on site. New mobile technology makes this easier than ever to perform.
Many laboratory software solutions such as LIMS offer add-on CIM modules. While these may be bundled with the other system, such modules rarely offer comprehensive capabilities, tend to have limited functionality, and do not represent a core competency of the vendor.
SaaS and cloud solutions are typically on-demand versions of enterprise solutions with all the features at a fraction of the price. SaaS solutions are designed to be very scalable and can be deployed much faster than installed solutions.
The importance of real-time chemical inventory information cannot be underestimated. In this Internet age, everyone expects accurate data to be at their fingertips instantly. Knowing who has taken a chemical container, what condition it is in upon return, and whether it needs to be reordered are just a few of the questions that CIM technology can answer immediately and accurately.
For more information about chemical inventory management, watch Lab Manager Magazine’s on-demand webinar “How to Calculate the Costs and Quantify the Financial Benefits of Chemical Inventory Management” at www. labmanager.com/chemmanagementspotlight. This archived webinar originally took place on March 27th.