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Unlocking Value in the Lab Through Increased Efficiency

Automated inventory management systems enable scientists to focus on their research and improve labs' operational efficiencies

by Avantor, Inc.
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Randy Stone is executive vice president, laboratory solutions at Avantor. He oversees third-party products, proprietary lab platforms, and Avantor Services and is responsible for the Global Supply Chain organization.

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Randy Stone
Credit: Randy Stone

Q: What are the key areas labs must evaluate to optimize their processes and operate more efficiently?

A: Labs today must regularly evaluate their balance between time focused on core scientific activities and non-core activities, such as supply management and other operational tasks. When we evaluate scientists’ workload and the overall workflow of the lab, we can pinpoint and eliminate redundancies that are negatively impacting efficiency. The lab environment is where scientific research begins, and with today’s speed-to- market pressures, discovery is enabled through tools and process improvements that give time back to scientists. 

While crucial to lab operations, inventory management can take valuable time away from scientific discovery. For example, we worked with one of our customers and found they were spending 36,770 hours annually searching for supplies, writing purchase orders, and reconciling invoices. We partnered with the customer to automate these tasks with Inventory Manager (IM), our cloud-based inventory management system, which was able to return more than 16,000 hours spent on lab operations and have it redirected to research activities—that’s the equivalent of 8 full-time scientists. IM also removed excess inventory valued at $74,256 and redistributed overstock supplies. By evaluating and adjusting a lab’s workflow and inventory management processes, lab managers can save their facilities valuable time and money as well as operate more efficiently.

Q: What are some of the concerns you’ve heard from customers that speak to challenges they face in the lab?

A: Our Laboratory Solutions business works with a range of customers globally with diverse needs. For example, our pharma customers often share the need to improve lab efficiency. They work under the pressure of constrained timelines and patient needs for new medicines, so they want to find ways to increase efficiency and expedite the research and discovery process. Our biotech and startup customers often tell us they need extra arms and legs, and Avantor’s on-site support team is key to helping them scale up and increase output. Our education customers, which include academic and medical research institutions, need convenience and the ability to have the specific product they need when they need it. At the end of the day, there is a common theme of optimizing resources and returning the focus to science. Avantor’s approach to the complexities of the lab is to work with each customer to uncover their biggest pain points and develop a comprehensive plan that integrates the best our digital lab solutions and services can offer based on their unique needs.

Q: What role does data play in building an efficient lab and how can artificial intelligence (AI) and automation expedite processes in the lab to free up innovation?

A: The true power of data lies in a company’s ability to harness insights, create visualizations, and ultimately tell a compelling story. AI plays a crucial role in optimizing data collection. This is done by automating the extraction of information from experiments and sources which helps streamline workflows. At Avantor, we have a significant amount of data that enables us to share insights and identify efficiencies, from instrument calibration and sample management to inventory and energy efficiency. Our goal is to bring together the right data from across customers’ various systems so they can make decisions quickly.

AI also considers both historical and real-time data and can then predict the future and automate tasks. Our Laboratory Solutions team puts this into action with our Inventory Manager which connects to Smart Shelves containing digital sensors that track the amount of product in stock and the speed at which it’s being used. This data allows the shelves to know exactly when a product will run out and that it needs to be reordered. With the help of AI and automated data collection and visualization, we can automate tedious processes, eliminate inconsistencies, and ultimately give time back to the scientists, all the while making the lab’s digital ecosystem smarter and more efficient.

Q: What will lab collaboration in the future look like both within the physical space and through virtual means?

A: The pandemic proved that we could break the barriers that separate us. Looking forward, collaboration and the sharing of data amongst scientists across companies and industries will be critical in advancing scientific discoveries. 

In the physical sense, there will be increased utilization of shared and collaborative workspaces and laboratories. There is so much innovation occurring at startups and smaller companies, and the use of shared facilities and resources helps decrease the cost of research and experimentation. We will also see a rise in collaborative work across labs and facilities on the same research in different geographic locations. With greater mobility and an increasingly global footprint, scientists need to consider the complex logistics involved in maintaining the integrity of their work across locations.

Recently, Avantor partnered with Tobin Scientific to support end-to-end biopharma lab moves that require the transport of sensitive materials—offering relocation that meets temperature-specific requirements and temporary and long-term storage as needed. We anticipate an increased need for more sophisticated tools to meet evolving regulations around virtual meetings, project management, and document sharing. There will be opportunities for integration of technology such as IoT devices and sensors in labs for real-time monitoring of experiments and equipment, and greater use of digital and remote clinical trials. Lastly, conversational AI can play the role of a virtual research assistant supporting multiple scientists both globally and simultaneously to accelerate research.

Q: Please tell us about the digital services and technologies Avantor has to offer in supporting seamless communication and data sharing among researchers globally.

A: Enabling an open lab ecosystem can drive increased productivity and efficiency in research labs without significantly challenging existing business models. To support global research collaboration and accelerate digital connectivity, Avantor offers a suite of software and technology solutions that we call SmartScience.

For example, our Inventory Manager is customizable, allowing customers to manage the lab equipment and supplies that are specific to their needs across all their different locations. IM offers an open ecosystem and a comprehensive view of lab resources. We can make recommendations on products and materials a customer may need based on insights from other scientists who are conducting similar research. It can be integrated into customer platforms and Avantor’s e-commerce platform seamlessly and eliminates a key challenge for scientists globally as it provides real-time visibility into the status of the supplies they need to focus on their research. 

Another great example of a technology that has changed lab management is the electronic lab notebook (ELN). Inventory Manager was also designed to integrate with electronic lab notebooks (ELN) so that scientists can track their notes in the ELN and order supplies right from their notebooks. Their ELN can be synced with their colleagues to facilitate, data sharing. This kind of visibility and transparency cuts down on previously manual activities like sorting through stock shelves and streamlines ordering. 

By creating a cloud-based digital ecosystem with a customized combination of Avantor’s digital services and technologies, we can ultimately free up time for scientists to focus on their goals starting with discovery through commercialization.