Managing your inventory and equipment is necessary to keep your lab running efficiently; this is true whether you have tissue samples stored in liquid nitrogen or consumables that need to be constantly restocked. This requires utilizing workflows and processes to ensure the lab is working at peak efficiency, in addition to possessing the appropriate material and infrastructure to manage and track your assets. Here, we’ll review some of the ways you can proficiently manage your inventory and track your lab materials.
Sample Identification and Tracking
Quickly and accurately picking the right sample out of hundreds of others from a lab’s chemical stocks or cell banks without a comprehensive labeling system in place can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Regardless of whether you work in an academic lab or the private industry, having an efficient method to categorize, identify, track, and trace samples is the most vital aspect of maintaining inventory. The easiest and most cost-effective way to do this is with labels, as they allow you to print any relevant information as either alphanumeric text, serialized numbers, or 1D and 2D barcodes.
It is important to note, however, that the quality of the label will determine its effectiveness, and using the right label for the appropriate environment is something that necessitates careful consideration when managing inventory. The most frequently used storage environments for lab samples are refrigerators, low-temperature freezers, and liquid nitrogen tanks, which require the use of cryogenic labels that won’t fail as a result of the extremely low temperatures. Using thermal-transfer printed labels also ensures that they will resist exposure to alcohols and won’t smear or become illegible over time.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) and barcodes are the two best ways to track your sample inventory. For samples stored in freezers, RFID is the ideal choice, as they allow inventory of your samples to be taken without ever removing them from storage. Barcoded cryogenic labels are useful for tracking samples stored in freezers as well as liquid nitrogen Dewars.
The easiest and most straightforward way to track inventory and improve sample traceability, while simultaneously improving your lab’s overall efficiency, would be by implementing a laboratory information management system (LIMS). The LIMS will note the sample’s movement through the testing process, from the current user to the present state of the sample in the process, while also allowing any additional testing to be readily scheduled.
By scanning the sample, it is entered into the system, which records the sample’s location, its stage of analysis, and which scientist is currently working with it, while additional information can also be ascribed to the sample, such as the proper storage conditions, any clinical or phenotypic information, as well as its exact location, narrowed down to the particular freezer shelf, rack, box, row, and column. Creating detailed and accurate sample records through scanning barcode labels or using RFID receivers to read RFID labels, and by tracking chain of custody, the risk of mix-ups or lost samples is significantly reduced. The ability to automate the process also allows the time spent on arduous administrative tasks to be lessened. Enhanced integration with other lab instruments and applications can be readily done with modern LIMS, enabling the system to be further used to automate inventory management.
Monitoring and Maintenance of Lab Infrastructure
Maintaining the lab infrastructure in which your inventory is stored is as critical as the inventory itself. There are many possible pitfalls that can befall sample storage in the lab: freezers and refrigerators can lose power, the level of liquid nitrogen can run low in cryogenic Dewars, and the CO2 or O2 concentration can become unbalanced in an incubator. You might also run into complications with contamination as well as changes in humidity and air pressure.
Systems, such as XiltriX, can monitor the various parameters of your laboratory, storage, or manufacturing equipment, providing real-time updates and notifications while keeping detailed logs and reports of all parameter-related activity. With a cloud-based framework, systems like XiltriX are perfect for lab facilities as they can integrate all relevant reports into one interface that will notify the user of an emergency in the form of text messages, emails, alarms, or even sirens when anything goes wrong. Systems like XiltriX also make it possible to keep incubators contaminant-free by monitoring for particles under 0.3 microns in diameter, thereby allowing the presence of bacteria and other unicellular organisms to be readily detected.
A dedicated lab staff, using durable labels to identify samples, monitoring workflows, and using a monitoring system to maintain lab infrastructure is key to proper inventory management and the ability to overcome an emergency. Without these safeguards in place, performing even routine tasks can result in failure before you even begin. Once an experiment is underway, any missing component, due to low or defective stock, will end up halting the rest of your protocol in its tracks. This can result in the loss irreplaceable patient tissues or any number of other unforeseen errors. Proper record keeping of everything in your lab, while ensuring that your inventory is properly accounted for and in good operating condition, will keep your laboratory operating in the long run at peak efficiency and prevent errors from being introduced into your results.