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6 min read

Inventory management: how to manage laboratory supplies

screenshot of barcoded laboratory supply label

Laboratories rely on thousands of specialty supplies to operate. Laboratory inventory tracking methods are essential to control cost and reproducibility.

Managing their inventory of supplies and reagents is one of the motivations for adopting a Laboratory Information Management System or LIMS. Every lab has to manage a large and complex inventory of supplies. Proper inventory control is necessary to ensure the continuity of operations as running short of a key reagent can stop part or all the lab activities. In addition, laboratory supplies are expensive. Inadequate inventory levels will negatively impact budget and profitability.

This article proposes an inventory management system that can be applied to track laboratory supplies. Supplies are consumables purchased from vendors. 

Tracking equipment that is not consumed when performing experiments is a different issue that is addressed in a different article. Tracking samples produced by a lab is also outside the scope of this article.

Are you looking for an inventory tracking software solution, book a demonstration to learn how GenoFAB can help your team better manage your lab inventory of supplies and reagents. 

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2022-01-09_16-13-47

Screenshot of the GenoFAB inventory tracking software module.

Standardize supplies

Making a catalog of supplies used in the lab is the first step toward inventory management. The purpose of this catalog is to reduce costs and improve reproducibility.

Most supplies used in experimental workflows are available from different vendors and in different formats that look interchangeable. Without an official catalog of supplies by a lab, lab personnel is likely to order a variety of supplies that are more or less the same. It could end up with different types of cryogenic vials, different DNA assembly kits, different kinds of everything that’s used by the lab.

The multiplicity of similar supplies is wasteful. It creates unnecessary expenses.

  • Time is wasted researching supplies whenever an order needs to be placed.
  • Supplies are ordered in smaller quantities that don’t benefit from volume discounts
  • Supplies consumption will be less predictable making it difficult to order the quantity that can be used prior to their expiration date.
  • Lab personnel will be confused by the multiplicity of options available and will waste time figuring out which of the equivalent supplies they should use.

In addition, the multiplicity of supplies is likely to create reproducibility problems. Even though supplies may look equivalent when they are ordered, chances are that protocols and standard operating procedures have been designed with one specific supply in mind. Using a different variant may have unexpected consequences that ultimately will cost money as experiments need to be reworked.

It is the lab manager's responsibility to develop the laboratory supply catalog. As a rule of thumb, the catalog should be as lean as possible. Fewer supplies will allow them to order larger volumes at a discounted price. It will also simplify purchasing operations and save time for everyone involved.

The selection of supplies will be guided by considerations of prices, expected use, shelf life, availability, and their use in multiple protocols. In particular, the lab manager should consider whether a supply could be used in multiple workflows. If necessary, they should validate the use of a new supply in existing workflows and revise the Standard Operating Procedure accordingly.

Purchasing

Having a supply in the catalog makes it easier to purchase. Any lab member can request a new order of supply. The request can be reviewed by the lab manager and placed on the to-do list of the lab member in charge of purchasing.

The purchasing of many laboratory supplies is more complex than ordering some households from Amazon. The process often involves people from the procurement department of the lab organization and it involves a complex exchange of documents like purchase requisitions, purchase orders, packing slips, and invoices. The lab manager can save references to all of these documents in GenoFAB for future reference.

The status of the order can be placed in processing status between the time the order is initiated and the time it is completely delivered.

Both the lab manager, the person in charge of purchasing if different from the lab manager, and other lab members will often refer to the list of orders in progress for updates, to follow-up with vendors and the procurement department, and to avoid placing duplicate orders.

Receiving

After an order has been delivered to the lab, it needs to go through a formal onboarding process. It can be useful to designate areas of the lab as receiving areas used to temporarily store orders between their collection from the loading dock and the completion of their onboarding process. This will prevent people from leaving the order on the dock because they don’t know how to onboard them. It will also prevent people from not onboarding the orders properly and undermining the inventory tracking process.

Receiving areas can be organized by storage temperatures. A space at room temperature, a bin in the refrigerator, a drawer in the freezer.

Onboarding an order consists in transcribing information such as lot number or expiration date from the supply to GenoFAB, scanning and attaching the packing slip to the GenoFAB record.

Next, a label should be affixed to the supply order. Orders that come in a single unit like a bottle of chemicals will only require one label. However, orders that come in the form of a lot of subunits like a case containing 20 sleeves of Petri dishes or a case with 10 bags of cryogenic tubes will require one label per subunit. Clearly identifying the order on the subunit will make it possible to identify the supplies and manage inventory once bags from different orders may be mixed on a shelf or in a bin.

Finally, the last step of the onboarding process is to specify the storage location of the order. At which point the order status can be changed to available and the onboarding is complete.

It is common to order multiple kinds of supplies from a vendor at once. These supplies are likely to be delivered in multiple shipments leading to partial fulfillment. This can make it challenging to reconcile orders in GenoFAB and in the procurement system.

GenoFAB orders are focused on the procurement of a single unit of a single supply. When multiple supplies are ordered in a single procurement transaction, they will share the requisition, PO, and order numbers but they will appear as individual orders in GenoFAB.  GenoFAB assumes that supplies will be ordered one unit at a time. Ordering volume is handled by ordering the packaging size adequate for the lab consumption. This limits inventory to a minimum. If multiple units of a supply need to be ordered at the same time, they can be handled as multiple GenoFAB orders.

Tracking inventory

Supplies that have been onboarded need to be tracked which means updating their storage location, their quantity, and their status.

When the supplies are stored at their point of use, there is no need to change their location. If the lab has a storage room, then it may be necessary to update the storage location of a supply order whenever it is moved from one location to another.

The way quantities are tracked depends on a number of factors:

  • How critical the supply is.
  • How expensive it is.
  • How difficult it is to get.
  • How fast it is used.

When the supply is inexpensive, easy to get, and used slowly, lab members can request a new order when they see they are running low. There is no need to keep track of quantities. For example, there is no need to keep track of how many ml of ethanol have been used in a 1l bottle that may last a lab several years.

For supplies that are critical and used quickly, quantities are best tracked by keeping track of the number of subunits used rather than the number of items. For example, serological pipettes are often packages in cases containing 10 bags of 25 pipettes. Rather than keeping track of the number of pipettes in the inventory, it is sufficient to keep track of the number of bags. Whenever a bag is opened, the operator scans its label and updates the quantity in GenoFAB.

Tracking individual units of use should be best reserved for supplies that are expensive and critical. For example, many molecular biology kits come as a box containing enough reagents to perform a certain number of reactions. In this case, it makes sense to keep track of the number of units left in the kit.

Eventually, the supplies purchased in one order will be exhausted. At that point, the lab manager should delete the order storage location and change the status of the order to Archived. Archiving the order ensures traceability and data integrity. It is still possible to keep track of all the experiments that were performed with a particular order of reagents but the order is no longer available for people to use in their experiments.

Getting started

New GenoFAB users can export their current inventory and import their current inventory data in GenoFAB. Even though the structure of their data may be different from GenoFAB’s data structure, it is possible to import them into the system and clearly identify the import as legacy inventory data.

Importing legacy data facilitates GenoFAB’s adoption by providing lab members with all the inventory data in a single platform. It also makes the legacy inventory data searchable. And it allows users to assign them a storage location and print labels.

Users can decide to rely on these legacy data until the current inventory runs out at which points new orders are placed using the GenoFAB supply module.

Most users, however, decide to take advantage of the GenoFAB deployment to perform a complete inventory of their supplies. Doing an inventory has many benefits beyond the migration of data in GenoFAB. It is an opportunity to identify supplies that are past their expiration date, supplies that are no longer used in the lab, and supplies that are duplicates of each other. Identifying these problems and addressing them is likely to save space, improve the success rate of some experiments, and result in a leaner catalog of supplies that will be easier and cheaper to manage.  

GenoFAB can save your lab time and unecessary expenses by allowing your team to manage their inventory of reagents and supplies. Book a demo today

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