Step One: Get your chemical inventory under control.
In October 2012, Lab Manager, along with ChemSW Inc., hosted a Product Spotlight webinar, “How to Find and Fix the Top Eight Lab Chemical Management Errors.” Jon Webb, senior technical specialist and inventory consultant at ChemSW, gave a brief presentation on the challenges of chemical inventory and data management and outlined some of the common errors that exist in labs today. He discussed best practices in chemical inventory management and the attributes and advantages of implementing such a chemical inventory management system. The live webinar was attended by a global audience with varying levels of expertise from diverse industries. Following the presentation, attendees asked questions, voiced their concerns, and received feedback on specific challenges they encounter in their labs. This event provided them with a unique opportunity to interact with our expert in real time and to seek his guidance and advice on various issues related to chemical inventory management. The event was moderated by Tanuja Koppal, Ph.D., contributing editor for Lab Manager.
Q: What are some of the key challenges of chemical inventory and data management?
A: The biggest challenge for the lab when it comes to chemical inventory is how it is managed. That’s because managing the materials necessary for research isn’t something the researchers want to do. They just want the materials on their bench when it is time to run an experiment. So the biggest challenge is getting everyone in the lab to use a system that tracks chemical inventory, logging materials in and out of the system each and every time. Now most organizations aren’t doing this very well. They still track chemical inventory on paper, with a basic spreadsheet program, or with a legacy in-house solution. These systems are inefficient, awkward to use, and rarely provide realtime data, so the researchers don’t use them consistently. The result is incorrect inventory data, which means that the lab can’t rely on the system to ensure that materials are available and the lab’s workflows are compromised. The problem gets worse; without accurate chemical inventory information, the organization is caught up in a vicious cycle of under- or over-ordering chemicals, which means it can’t manage chemical costs efficiently. So you can see why it is important to get chemical inventory under control.
Q: Can you share with us the top eight chemical management errors you outlined during the webinar?
A: Certainly. Here’s a summary of the points I covered in the webinar. The number one error is overordering chemical inventory. Why does this happen? Because you don’t know what’s really in stock. Number two: not being able to find chemicals when you need them. You think you have a container in stock, but you can’t find it. Number three: throwing away expired chemicals that you found too late. Number four: not knowing specifically what chemicals are on-site. This can get you in trouble if any of those chemicals are regulated, and in today’s world many of them are. Number five: tracking chemicals manually with spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are static, which means your chemical inventory data is quickly out of date, the data is probably in more than one place, your spreadsheet is missing information about chemicals that someone else has ordered and not told you about, and so on. Number six: not barcoding chemical inventory upon receipt. If you don’t barcode materials, you won’t be able to track them accurately. Number seven: storing chemicals incorrectly and not isolating hazardous materials. This all adds up to number eight: spending more money on chemical inventory management than you need to, from the cost of the chemicals to the time you spend managing them.
Q: What can be done to tackle some of those challenges and make processes more streamlined and efficient?
A: Organizations need to begin by adopting a chemical inventory system that promotes container-based tracking and leverages barcode technology. Once you know what chemical inventory is on hand and where it is, you’ll be eliminating a lot of workflow problems, excessive chemical costs, and, of course, regulatory scrutiny. You’ll want a best-practices system that uses barcode technology to provide accurate, real-time chemical container data.
Q: What are some of the disadvantages of barcoding? How do you barcode very small containers, less than 1 mL in volume?
A: That’s an interesting question. There are no disadvantages to barcoding per se; however, if you have a very small inventory of just operational and maintenance materials in small quantities, then barcoding those items may or may not make sense. Do what makes sense for the size and scope of your operation. Barcoding makes sense in a setting where there are many containers of many different types of materials. And there’s a simple solution to barcoding small containers. If you’re tracking very small vials, for instance, just put them in a small plastic bag and put the barcode label on the outside of the bag.
Q: How do you label containers that are used to temporarily store or transport chemicals taken from the larger, bulk container (labeling of parent and child containers)?
A: You’ll want to barcode both the larger parent container and the child containers or aliquots associated with it. This is because the child containers move around the facility and have a separate presence. A best practices system can easily associate such containers with the materials in the database and enable you to keep track of all the containers.
Q: Do you have any recommendations on efficiently storing, tracking, and updating material safety data sheets (MSDS)?
A: Managing multiple MSDS is not just a matter of obtaining the MSDS. It’s also about managing revisions and updates to those MSDS. The answer is to automate the process. MSDS management is very closely tied to chemical inventory; hence, having a system that allows for a one-to-one ratio of MSDS to on-site material is key. I would advise using an MSDS management solution provider that can provide ongoing MSDS change management service to ensure that you always have the most current MSDS for the chemicals on hand.
Q: What attributes should you look for when choosing a chemical inventory system for your lab?
A: There are three important attributes or operational modes to look for when evaluating a chemical inventory system. The first is the ability to track material-level information that identifies physical hazards and structures. The second should be vendor, product, and MSDS specific to ensure that you have a one-to-one match of the MSDS to the specific vendor container. The third is barcoding. The barcodes should track the container by owner, location, expiration date, etc., and provide an audit trail. Thus, you’ll be looking for a system that streamlines chemical inventory workflows from receipt to disposal, and the most effective way to do this is with a barcode system that logs all incoming materials at the container level.
Q: If you were to give some advice and share some best practices, what would those be?
A: We have a mantra that is core to how we’ve designed ChemSW’s CISPro system: effective inventory management involves getting the right inventory to the right place at the right time in the right quantity. Once that happens, everything else falls into place and the organization can run more efficiently and confidently. The best way to ensure that this happens is to implement a chemical inventory management system that uses barcode technology. Barcode technology enables end users to efficiently manage chemicals from receipt to disposal. When chemical containers are barcoded, they are more easily tracked and accounted for, ensuring that the data is accurate and can be easily updated. When best practices are in place, associated workflows are streamlined, enabling the lab to operate more efficiently. A bestpractices system makes it easy to manage and track chemicals and automate regulatory reports to streamline your workflows.
Jon Webb is a senior technical specialist and inventory consultant for ChemSW, the leading provider of chemical inventory systems. ChemSW’s solutions enable organizations to streamline laboratory processes, address regulatory requirements, and reduce chemical costs.
ChemSW’s CISPro® Chemical Inventory System is a high-performance system for tracking chemicals and other laboratory supplies. CISPro enables users to maintain a listing of all the chemicals on-site, track chemicals by location and quantity, generate reports, and quickly access hazard information during an emergency. CISPro delivers ease of use and powerful features for chemical tracking and reporting anywhere, any time.