We’ve all been there before: your protocols have been outlined, your calculations have been triple checked, your equipment is on standby, but when you go to the cabinets to grab the reagent you need to run your experiment, you realize you’re out of stock.
Somebody forgot to reorder after grabbing the last bottle. Another researcher used it for their experiment and didn’t think to mention it. The expiration date came sooner than you remembered.
Every lab has its own way of managing inventory—from whiteboards and Post-Its to spreadsheets and Slack—but unless the system is followed religiously by everyone working in the lab at all times, then the risks of costly delays and logistical headaches remain.
Today, more and more labs are digitizing their inventory with new applications that are designed to take the hassle out of tracking and reordering reagents and consumables. Here are some tips you can implement in your lab right now to be more efficient and save on inventory costs.
Top 10 Tips for Optimizing Lab Inventory Management
Tip #1. Assign Custom Storage Locations
Knowing where to find your consumables at all times is half the battle. When you start a new inventory management system, be sure to give thought to how you want things organized. Don’t lump too many items into one location; instead, clearly define sub-locations by building, room, shelf, and bin to eliminate any guesswork.
Does your lab stock controlled substances, hazardous materials, or perishable consumables? Consider what makes the most sense for your lab when assigning locations and sub-locations, and organize your inventory by product type, frequency of use, temperature, cost, expiration date, light exposure, hazard class, or other unique categorizations.
Tip #2. Stay Alert to Expiration Dates
For some labs, encountering expired reagents is a consistent nasty surprise. Even if the expiration date is typed in an Excel spreadsheet, there’s no alert that will encourage you to take action before it’s too late. Get an inventory system that lets you know when your stuff is about to expire, before it expires. Let the software remember for you, with built-in notifications so you can quickly filter and find the materials you need with enough time to properly dispose of it and replenish it.
Tip #3. Set Low Stock Reminders
Have you ever started an experiment and not known that a neighboring location or user has the material you need? Keep track of how much you have available, not just how many individual containers are in stock, but the cumulative total of a product across benches. Select an inventory management system that makes it easy to view your supply totals at the macro and micro levels and create minimum and maximum limits to ensure you always have an appropriate amount on hand.
Tip #4. Automatically Deduct Used Materials
“I’ll write it down tomorrow, I swear!”
The people in your lab may have good intentions, but even the best of us can get sidetracked or forget to do simple tasks. With an inventory management system that is natively integrated with an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN), you can assign materials to an experiment, and then automatically deduct the defined quantities when the experiment is over. Having a seamless connection between your ELN and inventory management makes material lifecycle tracking more accurate and efficient, so you don’t have to monitor everything manually.
Tip #5. Establish Your Rules for Requesting
Knowing that your inventory is running low doesn’t do any good unless you have a system in place to replenish your stock. Request management is an integral part of an efficient lab inventory software. Set up rules so that anyone can submit requests if materials are running low and determine who can approve requests based on lab roles and permissions. Instituting visibility into what has and has not been ordered, and whether or not the materials have been received, will help to reduce lab waste and duplication, while at the same time ensuring the continuity of your research.
Tip #6. Know What Your Substitute Options Are
Every baker has faced the dilemma of substituting baking powder for baking soda in the kitchen. In the lab, there may come a time when you can’t get the exact material you want from your preferred provider, in which case it would be helpful to know about available alternatives.
For example, suppose you’re looking for Sodium Chloride and while you typically use Thermo Fisher product, you’re out of stock; however, you check and see that you have plenty of Sodium Chloride from Sigma-Aldrich that you can use instead. Your inventory management system should make it easy to search and locate alternative materials across vendors when you need to, and tag key materials as “Do Not Substitute” for scenarios where simply no replacement will do.
Tip #7. Label, Label, Label
Having a clear and consistent labeling system in your lab makes finding, deducting, and requesting materials significantly easier. To minimize manual workarounds, find an inventory management system that works with your existing infrastructure and can output unique identifiers and barcode labels to your label printers. Then, use a handheld scanner or mobile app to accurately and efficiently make updates to your inventory.
Tip #8. Go Mobile
More and more of our daily lives are being funneled into our phones—step counters, shopping lists, smart thermostat controls, and so on. For the gadget-obsessed researcher, being able to monitor and adjust your lab’s inventory from your phone is a must. Some inventory and request management platforms, like BrightLab, have native iOS and Android apps that can be used to streamline the scanning of QR codes and barcode labels, deducting spent materials, and submitting new material requests.
Tip #9. Track Waste and Usage
Whether you need it for compliance or curiosity, an inventory management system with an activity log can help you gain insights into who in your lab has been using materials, in what quantities, and whether anything has been disposed.
In addition, if you’ve ever had a situation in which your experiments seem to be giving you different results after you’ve switched suppliers, an activity log can provide you with visibility and traceability into the effectiveness of the materials you’re using by experiment.
Tip #10. Report on Spending
Any inventory management system worth its salt should enable you to easily and reliably report out on your spending, and track which materials have been requested against which cost centers and grants. Avoid overspending and running out of resources before the year is out, or worse, underspending and losing budget allocation for the next term. Use your inventory and request management platform to track expenditures and export to a shareable spreadsheet if needed.
Ready to Upgrade Your Inventory?
Get started with BrightLab for free and discover how easy it is to optimize your lab’s processes, reduce errors and waste, and improve project transparency. If you’re interested, we’ll even help convert your existing inventory list so you can begin realizing gains right away!