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Inventory Management Solutions in the Modern Laboratory

Learn about the benefits of inventory management systems and selecting the right one

Aimee O’Driscoll

Inventory management has come a long way in recent years. While past systems relied on pen and paper methods, advancement in technology means a broad range of solutions are available. Largely computerized systems leverage cloud-based software, automation, machine learning, and more to provide innovative solutions to inventory management. Lab staff forgo the clipboard in favor of barcode scanners, intuitive apps, and even robots.

Laboratory inventory management solutions help labs run more efficiently and can be used to manage everything from samples and reagents to PPE and cleaning supplies. Various systems are available to help with tasks such as tracking stock levels, reordering, assigning storage locations, comparing prices, conducting audits, and more. When used effectively, these solutions help improve productivity, minimize stock level problems, and comply with safety standards.

Key benefits of inventory management solutions

For many research laboratories, managing inventory can be a time-consuming and tedious task. It is not uncommon for laboratory staff to spend hours manually tracking inventory levels, inputting data into multiple spreadsheets, and trying to spot errors or omissions. Minor hurdles in the process can lead to issues such as running out of materials, overordering, wasted supplies, or “lost” items. Tasks such as annual reconciliations and stock-takes can represent mountainous burdens for lab personnel.

According to Daniel Fitzpatrick, managing director of ChemInventory, a key benefit of using an inventory management solution is the reliability of information and record keeping and ensuring that people can find items efficiently. “This leaves them more time to spend on their actual work, rather than endlessly searching for containers that may have been thrown out months previously.” Fitzpatrick also notes the importance of access to data in an emergency situation. “If a fire alarm is activated in a lab, you need to be able to quickly supply information about potential hazards in the lab, be it flammables, compressed gas cylinders, and so on.”

Some inventory management solutions also give labs access to advanced technologies such as chemical structure searching and container barcoding. “Tools designed for lab inventory management usually are packed with additional features that simple Excel files or lists don’t have,” says Fitzpatrick. “This helps users find records relevant to their work quickly and easily.”

Challenges that may prevent laboratories from adopting new systems

As with any new tool, some laboratory staff may be hesitant to adopt a new system due to the fear of the learning curve associated with using it. Another challenge relates to the use of computerized systems—in particular, cloud-based platforms. A system crash or hack can be disastrous for any business, but it’s especially critical for a laboratory. Labs often rely on their inventory management solutions to keep track of valuable samples and a system failure could mean the loss of irreplaceable data.

There are a few things that laboratories can do to mitigate these risks. First, it is important to partner with a reputable and experienced vendor. In addition, lab personnel should be properly trained in how to use the new system. Most modern solutions come with training and support resources to help users get up to speed quickly and efficiently. Finally, appropriate security measures such as automated data backups should be put in place to ensure that data can be protected and recovered in the event of a system failure or breach. 

The benefits of using a new laboratory inventory management solution can far outweigh any initial challenges. Automating inventory management can save time, improve accuracy, and free up staff to focus on more value-added tasks.

Deciding on the best inventory management solution

While determining which inventory management system to use will depend largely on the type of lab and the work performed, there are some general factors to consider. Fitzpatrick advises decision-makers to research the size of the tool’s customer base, how long it has been operating for, and the regularity of updates and added features. He also recommends checking the reliability and uptime of any cloud-based tools. “When migrating to a new system, it’s vital that it is available 24/7. Nothing is more frustrating when designing experiments than to find that the tool which details your lab’s holdings is suddenly unavailable.”

When deciding on an ideal solution, it’s helpful to look out for platforms that offer a free version or no-obligation trial period, so you can test them out before fully committing to the investment. “Given the wide variety of tools on the market, being able to try a system with your own data can help lab managers make a decision about which is right for them and the way their team works,” says Fitzpatrick.

Getting the most out of an inventory management solution

Even though it will provide long-term benefits, implementing an inventory management is bound to cause some disruption in the short term. Things may move a little slower as the system is set up and staff become accustomed to a new method of inventory management. That said, the process can go far more smoothly if the implementing team works closely with the solution provider, and staff are trained appropriately and promptly.

Once systems are in place, it’s important that manufacturers’ instructions are followed. This includes the timely implementation of updates. “An outdated inventory database quickly becomes useless for everyone involved,” explains Fitzpatrick. “Day-to-day users in the lab cannot rely on information when looking for bottles or samples, and safety and compliance staff cannot easily use it to complete regulatory filings or in emergency situations.”

Laboratory inventory management systems can greatly improve efficiency in the lab. They can save time, provide more reliable information, and help with safety and compliance. While there are concerns over a learning curve and system crashes, these risks can be mitigated with proper implementation and training. Just make sure to consider all the options available and choose the system that best suits your needs.