Consumables and reagents are the lifeblood of scientific progress, and without the proper materials, productivity grinds to a halt. Prudent labs have adopted processes to track what’s in the lab and how much is left so items can
quickly be reordered and the lab can keep moving.
But, maintaining accurate stock information is only addressing one facet of inventory’s impact on lab productivity.
Another common, yet often overlooked, productivity drain
comes from labs not taking steps to keep detailed information
on supply location.
Just how important is tracking where things are in your
lab? Start by considering this scenario:
On Aug. 12, 2015, a set of explosions starting from a
chemical storage facility in Tianjin, China took the lives of
173 people, injuring nearly 800 more, and generating damages
in excess of $3 billion. When investigations were completed to
determine the cause of the explosions, it was found to be the
over 40 kinds of hazardous chemicals being stored together,
which facilitated a deadly chain reaction leading to the ex-
plosion. Accidents as serious as Tianjin are rare, but everyday
labs operate with a general ignorance of where exactly their
volatile reagents are stored and, especially, where they are
stored in relation to each other.
Communication and accountability
Poor communication around lab inventory is a daily threat
to productivity. Knowing where reagents and lab-made supplies are stored is necessary to ensure scientists are spending
more time at their bench. In the last few years, the average
turnover rate for life science organizations has grown to
nearly 20 percent, and many scientists are taking the knowledge of where things are located with them when they leave.
This means the next person that fills their role will need to
spend time learning the lay of the land before inevitably taking this knowledge with them too, resulting in a vicious and
Tracking inventory location is an important part of improving reproducibility as well. In some instances, environmental
factors of where a supply is stored can lead to a difference in
results. In fact, it has been found that small factors, like the
temperature of a particular lab bench, could have a significant
impact on the outcome of an experiment.
Even taking into account the aforementioned risks, many
labs still fail to find the time for proper inventory tracking.
Often, managing inventory is seen as too time-consuming with
very little benefit. Hopefully, you can see the need for better
inventory management. If you need some tips on how to get
started, here are three:
1) Centralize and define your inventory data
As a lab, commit to keeping inventory information in one
place. Identify the important supply-related data you’ll need to
keep track of and make sure you’re accounting for it in your
tracking. Wherever this data is kept, it should be accessible to
everyone in the lab, but you may wish to consider restricting
who can edit the information to avoid potential errors. Lastly,
be sure to nominate someone as a lab inventory champion to
ensure tracking is being done regularly.
2) Commit to regular inventory checks
Weekly, monthly, even quarterly is acceptable, but it needs
to be done. With a centralized inventory database it’s easy to
reduce the work required and share this responsibility among
multiple people. Regular checks ensure more accurate data
and help you stay abreast of what’s coming in and out of your
lab. The good news: this task gets easier once you start tracking location.
3) Look for specialized lab inventory solutions
Applications like Excel and Filemaker can be helpful, but
they don’t offer the time-savings a specialized lab solution can
provide. For instance, lab management applications should
not only help you track what’s in stock and where it is, but
have lab-specific features that allow you to monitor expiration
dates, easily pull up MSDSs, and automatically update inventory as new items come into the lab.
Often, before an experiment begins, science teams will
plan out the reagents and supplies required to execute it.
This time-intensive exercise is seen to be worth the investment because it ensures scientists don’t run out of a specific
material during the course of their work and helps them stay
productive. But simply keeping track of what’s in stock is not
enough. For labs seeking to fully achieve operational excellence, adopting inventory practices and solutions that go beyond simply tracking what’s available is crucial.
Editor’s Note: This article was republished via The Conversation. Read
the full, original version at theconversation.com. Author photo courtesy
of University of Washington. We invite you to submit your personal
commentaries to Last Word. Send to: Michelle Taylor, Editor-in-Chief,
Taking Stock of How We
Stock Our Labs