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Time is Money

The Hidden Cost of Inefficient Laboratory Practices

This white paper presents an overview of the main inventory management challenges in fast-paced life science laboratories and how they directly impact research outcomes, costs and regulatory compliance.

What You’ll Learn

  • How day-to-day challenges in your laboratory directly affect your research outcomes.
  • The risks posed to your organization by disorganized inventory records
  • How you can save time, reduce costs, stay compliant with regulatory bodies and generate financial gains for your lab.

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Maintaining detailed records of reagents is an essential part of maintaining scientific rigor in research. The systems used by the scientific community in documenting and managing this information, however, can be highly administrative, tedious, and surprisingly prone to errors. So, for many labs, reagent record management consists of routine, repetitive tasks involving manual data entries for each of, perhaps, hundreds of chemicals, solutions, and other consumables used in large, bustling life science laboratories. On the surface, spending a few minutes locating a reagent or manually documenting its details may be perceived as insignificant, but what remains largely overlooked is the resulting time sink that diminishes the laboratory’s overall performance.

Here, we discuss the main inventory management challenges faced by fast-paced biotech and pharmaceutical laboratories, highlighting how this directly impacts research outcomes, costs and regulatory compliance.

Unproductive Time: How Everyday Inefficiencies Impact Research Output

If scientists were to closely examine their daily activities, everyday inventory management would account for a sizable chunk of total time spent.

Our survey reveals that routine inventory upkeep in laboratories consumes up to 25% of a scientist’s time. In a series of repetitive manual tasks, scientists document each arriving reagent, record its details, mark opening dates and track expiry. They then need to inspect records of multiple reagents they’ve handled and manage their inventory before and after use. Any transcription errors made at the manual inventory registration step remain in the archives and trickle into the rest of the workflow, threatening data integrity.

The challenge for scientists

Manual inventory management practices make it rather cumbersome for scientists to carry out daily responsibilities. Firstly, scientists need to perform the laborious and time-consuming process of manually entering inventory records, sometimes mid-experiment. These manual tasks often face the risk of basic human errors or unintentional oversight, requiring scientiststo repeat experiments unnecessarily. Finally, if these errors get overlooked, again, due to the heavy reliance on manual checks, it can result in cascading inaccuracies within the entire research project, impacting data reproducibility and delaying project timelines.

Without streamlined or digital methods to manage inventory, scientists also face multiple reagent-related obstacles during a working day. For instance, commonly used reagents might become misplaced as they are used by different laboratory staff. Without a system to monitor inventory, it can be challenging to track down these reagents or obtain an overview of the stock. As a result, multiple bottles are often opened at once, causing resource mismanagement and unnecessary wastage. To corroborate this problem numerically, 60% of the scientists we surveyed said they have some form of tool in place to manage inventory, but 90% of them still struggled to find the location of consumables.

The challenge for R&D leaders

Laboratory managers and R&D leaders, who may not be privy to the day-to-day challenges faced by scientists, often notice that workflows tend to take much longer than expected, but rarely anticipate inventory mismanagement as the root cause. Their monthly checks reveal too many expired reagents or a sudden reagent shortage despite having an inventory system in place, unaware that the system is unreliable and inconvenient to use. Moreover, to perform these root-cause analyses, they invest more time and resources to comb through all the manual data that is error-prone to begin with, discovering isolated data silos or data graves, sometimes with irretrievable information.

The challenge for C-suite leaders

CEOs in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry seek to improve operations, expand the company’s capabilities and reshape its talent. In their efforts to maintain data integrity – the very essence of the company’s operations – they may not fully recognize that best data management practices are not entirely attainable with just manual methods. If there’s a digital system in place, C-suite leaders tend to assume that it is being used, when in reality, their scientists may either find these systems too complicated or simply a hindrance to their long to-do list. When C-level executives create budget plans to reduce costs and manage resources more efficiently, they may totally disregard the costs associated with the unproductive time spent by highly skilled laboratory personnel in carrying out repetitive, mundane inventory tasks. Finally, in managing the company’s R&D talent, C-suite leaders may be completely blindsided by the overwhelm experienced by their scientific staff in performing tedious data entry tasks. The risks of higher employee turnover due to professional dissatisfaction not only stretches project timelines but also diminishes the morale of existing staff.

Motion waste: When information is all over the place

Maintaining and locating manual inventory records can aggravate inconveniences on a daily basis. Every time a reagent is required, scientists need to physically scour through storage cabinets to find it, increasing the time spent on low-value tasks. Once the reagent is located, its relevant details for experimental records will again require flipping through archived files. Repetitive actions to locate, use, record and suitably store reagents amount to significant motion waste in a laboratory.

Motion waste may seem rather innocuous, but in closer analysis, it often results in a two-pronged attack on the laboratory’s overall research output:

  • The unreasonable costs of having highly trained scientists performing low-value tasks every day.
  • The lost value to the research project as capable laboratory personnel are obligated to prioritize mundane inventory management over high-value contributions.

Cumulative effects of unproductive time spent by every scientist across multiple departments or sites can negatively impact business outcomes. This could mean losing competitive advantage in the pharmaceutical industry due to extended time-to-market. Similarly, in contract research organizations (CROs), motion waste can gradually diminish business potential with slower project turnarounds limiting the number of clients served.

When accounting for laboratory costs, inventory management and motion waste are generally not considered as contributing factors. However, a report released by the EU Commission estimated that improper data management in research activities costs the European economy at least €10.2 billion every year. Outlining best practices, the report suggests that research data needs to be FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.

This time-sink caused by everyday motion waste directly impacts data findability. Plus, the lack of a reliable system makes it difficult to access records for annual stock reviews or audits. During instances of data intervention by either a regulatory authority or a laboratory manager, additional time is then spent on re-capturing old data records into more preferred formats. Frequent episodes of data cleansing can result in substantial motion waste as scientists pause research projects to instead get inventory records in order.

Data entry inconsistencies coupled with poor data governance in a laboratory can further increase motion waste as team members decipher each other’s record-keeping systems. In fact, in a recent case study, we found that researchers in a pharmaceutical company spent up to 50 minutes to find a sample. When scaled over thousands of employees, such unproductive time can significantly impact the company’s capabilities.

To address motion waste, R&D leaders will need to start probing into how their scientifically trained team members end up spending time on repetitive, mundane inventory-tracking tasks. In the long run, career fulfillment for a scientist comes from solving bigger research questions. Without a prompt resolution, these ineffective laboratory practices can translate into lower professional satisfaction, underperformance or higher employee turnover.

Quick steps to prevent motion waste

  • Make it easy to capture A quick and error-free digital data capture system can give scientists their time back. Our survey revealed that incorporating an inventory management system reduces the annual time required to manage inventory by 97%.
  • Make it easy to find and retrieve: Having a centralized inventory dashboard where laboratory members can view stock records in real-time can minimize search time.
  • Easy workflow adoption The inventory management system needs to be simple to use and easily integrated into existing workflows without requiring elaborate training or IT setup.