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Redesigning Lab Operations Through Expert Inventory Management

Difficulties in the lab can be resolved by “redesigning” how materials are procured, managed, and replenished

Tola Olorunnisola
Comprehensive laboratory inventory management solutions can provide a powerful tool to remove research bottlenecks and give scientists more time to conduct science.
Carl Fowler/dpi digital content

Scientific discovery in the lab depends on having a range of materials and consumables available when researchers are ready to start their studies. If the right materials aren’t available, discovery can stop in its tracks, costing valuable time, losing research productivity and making lab operations inefficient. 

In addition, scientists and researchers are passionate about environmental consciousness and responsibility. Lab managers need to strike a difficult balance: making sure their researchers have the best equipment and resources to do the best science, while advancing sustainable operations. One way to accomplish this goal is to base their procurement and materials and equipment management decisions on what best contributes to sustainability while advancing their research.

Many of the inefficiencies and difficulties that labs face can be resolved by “redesigning” how the materials essential to lab operations are procured, managed, and replenished. Leading research organizations are discovering that the most effective way to achieve this redesign is through outsourcing laboratory inventory management to expert third-party providers. Their expertise has the potential to reduce wasted time and materials in lab processes, as well as give scientists more time to do what they do best: science.

Key inventory management issues and challenges

Whether it’s flasks, protein assay kits, gloves, or safety garments (or thousands of other products), lab consumables and a broad array of research equipment are essential tools for every lab. However, many labs face difficulties procuring, tracking and managing the inventory of these materials in an accurate and timely manner. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, there can be outside forces that wreak havoc on global supply chains. Several factors limit the ability of many labs to effectively conduct inventory management.

Lack of inventory visibility: As drug developers and manufacturers strive to reduce costs, many companies pushed to adapt lean manufacturing processes to lab inventory management. However, lean manufacturing uses statistical process control and control charting and assumes a highly predictable and stable set of production conditions. Labs operate differently—results of studies come in and future studies are either canceled or expanded, or new areas of research need to be implemented. Given these dynamics, a consistent lack of visibility makes it difficult to measure the impact of poor inventory management on the ability of scientists to complete planned projects in a timely manner.

Scientists doubling as inventory managers: In many labs, scientists are often tasked with managing the consumables inventory for their specific labs. For many it is an unwanted responsibility and, since they are not trained in inventory management, the result can be stock-outs of needed products or overordering and slow inventory turnover. The other major cost is time. Asking scientists to handle the essential but nonscientific tasks of inventory management is time away from science—which is why expert inventory management organizations will use “time returned to science” as a key metric.

Procurement facing persistent obstacles: Purchasing organizations face challenges implementing the kind of control that would solve many of these issues. Many labs are complex organizations with thousands of scientists, often operating in multiple locations or large campus environments. These organizations develop their own purchasing practices and preferences, which leads to siloing—making it difficult for lab management to get purchasing and inventory under control.

Comprehensive laboratory inventory management solutions can provide a powerful tool to remove research bottlenecks and give scientists more time to conduct science.
Carl Fowler/dpi digital content

Impact of COVID-19: From “Just in Time” to a redefined “Just in Case”

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to ongoing supply chain disruptions, impacting life sciences research labs worldwide. It’s leading to a reassessment of the ways inventory management can mitigate risk and keep labs from shutting down. 

Well-intentioned efforts to apply Just in Time (JIT) inventory management practices adapted from manufacturing to lab operations unfortunately led to major disruptions across the global research establishment when these supply chain disruptions occurred. Many researchers were forced to reach out via social media channels to see if colleagues could help them find scarce reagents, specialty tubes and other materials needed to keep their research projects on track. It is clear that there needs to be a shift from an extremely lean JIT approach for supplying lab inventories to a redefined Just in Case (JIC) approach that’s more adaptable and better resourced than the traditional JIC strategy that requires keeping large quantities of inventory on hand. 

This calls for a deep understanding by suppliers and procurement managers of each lab’s existing and potential supply needs, based on location-specific consumption rates and stocking requirements. It also requires having enough slack within a supplier’s manufacturing and distribution capacity to be able to flex delivery based on circumstances. 

A redefined JIC approach also requires a quantum leap in data visibility into lab inventories and supply chains. Labs, distributors and the suppliers of lab consumables need closer, more collaborative relationships that provide accurate, real-time data about what is stored where and what is available to be shifted or surged when disruptive events occur.

The solution: Comprehensive inventory management

There is little benefit to piecemeal inventory management best practices or continuing to let scientists double as procurement managers. The most productive path forward is through a comprehensive, all-in-one inventory management solution outsourced to expert management services providers. A well-designed and properly implemented inventory management system handled by experts will build confidence and trust with scientists. It will enable them to let go of past tendencies to silo and keep control of their purchasing activities by giving them the right materials at the right place and time to move their research forward.

Working with individual lab departments and with purchasing, a comprehensive inventory management program should be an analytics-driven solution that continually gathers supplies usage and storage data—to create inventory baselines, then to update those baselines based on real-world usage requirements. This requires implementing a state-of-the-art inventory management software platform that has the same user interface and operating processes for all labs being served. The most effective way to achieve these goals is to include third-party lab service personnel who work onsite or offsite and develop insights that can help prevent stock-outs as well as help prevent overordering, hoarding and stocking of materials with low turn rates, contributing to overall cost savings.

Improving scientific collaboration and research productivity calls for a dramatic improvement in lab operations’ data visibility and analytics.
Skynesher/Getty Images

Setting the stage for the Lab of the Future

Comprehensive inventory management can provide a key step toward implementing the “Lab of the Future.” In this concept, labs leverage the latest technology and skills of science and management professionals to reduce wasted time, effort and resources to accomplish scientific goals. It can transform how labs operate through: 

Software: Cloud-based software solutions can replace paper-based inventory practices, providing better transparency across the full lab ecosystem. Specialized software to manage inventory or chemicals can mirror the scientific journey to document and track each step, from procurement and use to storage and cost. As a result, labs can effectively streamline lab management. 

Automation: Similar to the Internet of Things (IoT) concepts in many manufacturing segments, lab testing equipment and research tools can be networked to provide vital data and efficiently schedule preventative maintenance and calibration programs. Automation can simplify how lab consumables are distributed through connected hardware systems such as smart shelves in stockrooms where all inventory is on electronically connected storage units. Any time an item is removed from a smart shelf, it initiates a sensor-triggered demand signal to enable real-time tracking, automate replenishment and improve analysis of demand.

Advanced data and analytics: The ability to connect existing data with the right technology, such as IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, relies on both historic and real-time data to generate predictive analytics. Deep dives into data related to what scientists are doing and what protocols they are working on can identify patterns that aren’t normal and forecast out how to respond with inventory planning and distribution choices that better mitigate risk.

But labs can move beyond predictive tools, with third-party providers able to deliver AI-based prescriptive analytics that recommend options and their potential outcomes. By integrating data points from equipment like laboratory information management systems (LIMS) with multiple layers of machine learning, a lab can leverage actionable intelligence that helps improve decision-making, optimize next steps and capitalize on opportunities. 

Sustainability: A growing number of scientific leaders are working to make the research lab more sustainable, reducing paper, chemical and electronic waste streams and improving water consumption and energy use. Efforts are being made to quantify how specific waste reduction efforts can be scored and to demonstrate progress toward becoming more sustainable. Working within a comprehensive lab inventory management solution, a research organization can develop sustainability metrics, then work with supply chain experts to incorporate sustainability into purchasing and inventory management practices.

The human element: The Lab of the Future should dramatically improve how scientists work, communicate and collaborate—between scientists on the same team and scientists on other teams, as well as with inventory management and logistics professionals. 

With the right, real-time inventory data that all parties can trust, as well as more advanced analytics, decisions on a wide range of inventory management issues can be more reliable, timelier, and more completely aligned with the actual needs of each research project.

Moving forward with inventory management

Today’s research labs are routinely achieving amazing breakthroughs in fundamental science—as well as finding ways to “redesign” and streamline their operations: The speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed and production implemented is the latest dramatic example.

Expert laboratory inventory and supply management can continue this successful momentum, offering the potential to give scientists more time and resources to achieve new breakthroughs. More and more lab managers, procurement and purchasing departments, and upper-level management are discovering the clear advantages offered by comprehensive inventory management solutions. 

Designed and operated by experts in supply management, distribution, and purchasing, they offer one of the most effective ways to make sure every scientist and research team has the right materials and tools at the right place and time, every time, so they can move their science forward.  

Tola Olorunnisola is vice president of innovation, marketing, and digital at Avantor.