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Improving Lab Productivity with Effective Inventories

Modern inventory applications allow scientists to spend more time doing science

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Modern science demands a lot of resources. To conduct effective experiments, scientists must have the samples, reagents, consumables, assay components, equipment, tools, and instruments readily available. Time spent searching for specific items, repairing equipment, or finding depleted stock takes away from the time scientists can be thinking about their science and doing the right experiments and analyses. Lab managers can improve the productivity of their labs by taking steps to ensure that everything the scientists need is available when they need it. One important component of that process is to have effective and working inventories that track and monitor the things required to do the science.

Inventory systems aren’t new, but modern ones continue to improve. For instance, having specific software that provides real-time updates on where materials are located, monitors the amounts of important supplies, and tracks the uptime of equipment greatly reduces the uncertainty for scientists, saving them time and enabling them to be much more productive. 

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Furthermore, digital inventory systems don’t rely on human excellence to work properly, and they can monitor supplies and provide prompts to order, share important safety information outside the lab, and are highly scalable as the lab grows or changes.

While there are many different kinds of inventories that may be important to labs, there are four key inventories from which most labs gain significant benefits: chemical and biological inventories, sample inventories, equipment inventories, and lab supply inventories.

Chemical and biological inventories

Labs that regularly use different chemicals as part of their work benefit greatly from a dedicated chemical inventory program. The chemical inventory will allow the lab to clearly document which chemicals are in the lab, where they are located, how much is being stored, specific safety information, expiration dates, and how to dispose of them safely. For the scientists, the chemical inventory provides clear information about where to find different chemicals that they need and how to use them safely. The chemical inventory will also store the material safety data for each unique commercial chemical in the lab. Lab staff can add safety information or risk concerns for any experimental materials produced in the lab.

For the lab manager, an up-to-date chemical inventory provides a map of the materials in the lab that is important to a number of different safety activities. Mapping the locations of hazardous chemicals allows the lab to stay compliant with storage requirements and fire codes. It also helps the lab manager make clear decisions if the lab is threatened with a crisis. For instance, in the case of a fire, the information in a chemical inventory is required for firefighters to safely fight the fire. The absence of this information may prevent them from entering the lab. In other situations, like a flood, the chemical inventory allows the lab to know what was lost and get started again more quickly after the crisis is resolved.

Few things in the lab are as frustrating as spending a significant amount of time searching for a lost sample.

Digital chemical inventories that can be accessed remotely are preferred. This makes it much easier to share information with the fire department and preserve the information after a crisis.

Biological inventories are similar to chemical inventories for labs working with biologically active materials. They are important to managing the hazards of biological materials, and recovering from any lab crisis that destroys important biologically active materials. These inventories will document the types of biological samples (often including genus and species), their pathology, the required storage conditions, the quantity, and the biological safety level required to use and store them. For cell lines, the tissue source and type are also documented.

Equipment inventories

Having documentation of the equipment, tools, and instruments in a lab is often part of a quality management system (QMS). This inventory will include the types of equipment, locations, age, vendor, purchase price, and calibration requirements, along with other specific information of value to the lab. It is a best practice to include photos of instruments as part of an inventory. 

An equipment inventory provides valuable data for ensuring that calibration and metrology are completed on time and in compliance with the QMS. This will keep instruments working properly and available when needed by lab scientists. Furthermore, digital systems can remind lab staff when different pieces of equipment require calibration or planned maintenance. These data are also invaluable during lab audits and if insurance claims are required following a lab crisis.

Lab managers can also use equipment inventory information to contribute to data-driven decisions regarding purchasing and servicing instruments.

Lab supply inventories

Labs use a very large number of consumable items to conduct their science, everything from pipette tips to specialty chemicals. No one can remember all of the details of all of these items. An effective lab inventory system can track each unique item used in the lab, the model and part number, the vendor, the amount on hand, where it is stored, the storage conditions, expiration dates, and trigger levels to reorder. These inventory systems can also manage the reordering process connecting the source of the material, the purchase authority process for the lab, and the staff who require the items.

Inventories aren't new, but the effectiveness of modern ones continue to grow and improve.

Many labs still spend a significant amount of staff time searching for specific consumables, managing inventory from spreadsheets, and manually ordering individual items. These manual systems cannot provide the support that scientists need to be innovative in the lab.

Sample inventories

Few things in the lab are as frustrating as spending a significant amount of time searching for a lost sample. The science must stop until the sample is found. Having an effective sample inventory that tracks the location of samples solves this problem. Many sample inventories use bar codes and integrate with the laboratory information management system. Using a system like this enables any scientist to look up the location of any sample at any time. It also mistake-proofs the process of associating the right sample with the right data in electronic lab notebooks. 

Modern inventory applications have made enormous gains over the past couple of decades. There are many different types so that labs can have systems aligned with their science, needs, and budget. They have become more powerful, easier to install, and more useful in that they can share information between each other. With the enormous gains in how artificial intelligence and machine learning have demonstrated improved productivity in labs over the last couple of years, we can expect significant improvements in these systems in the near term. Hopefully, these improvements will enable faster implementation, faster decisions, better connectivity of important information, and enable scientists to spend even more time doing science and less time figuring out where the items they need are located.