Inventories of the chemical variety

I’ve been thinking a lot about chemical inventory systems recently.  Derek’s post yesterday made for an interesting read, especially the comments section.

Over the years I’ve seen most combinations of storage systems described there.  But what I’m much more interested in now is the software (or lack thereof) which runs these systems.  There’s no shortage of LIMS vendors out there.  There are even some free app-based inventory management solutions that I’ve played with (see Quartzy), which may work well for a small academic lab but lack functionality required by a modest sized company.

There’s a constant struggle, as others have pointed out, with compliance in any inventory management system.  The more work you require of a scientist to use the system, the more likely they are to ignore it entirely.  Barcoding, or more recently RFID tagging, attempt to alleviate some of the burden with logging and tracking materials.

But these attempts to automate inventory management all seem to suffer from what I’ll dub the problem of granularity.  The granularity problem is simply that for an inventory management system to be useful*, it must be sufficiently granular to describe the location of a material with both precision and accuracy.  In other words, a system which correctly identifies the location of a bottle of pyridine as “Chemistry lab 1,” is not precise enough to be useful.  Similarly, a full site map placing that bottle of pyridine in Bin 1, on Shelf 2, in Flammable Cabinet A, in Chemistry lab 1 is only useful if John Smith hasn’t used the last of it and forgot to remove the container from the inventory.

One might envision a system in which each storage location is fitted with an RFID reader, and each reagent bottle tagged with chip (which cost less than a quarter each now).  This system would be able to identify where exactly each reagent is simultaneously, provided it’s within range of an RFID reader.

And indeed, it seems like something like this has been done at least once.  The issue I envision with such a set up is one of granularity — you can’t practically put a reader in each bin on each shelf of each cabinet in your entire facility.  That being said, such a system would probably be able to distinguish whether or not a particular reagent is in the proper flammable cabinet, or if John Smith moved it to his fume hood.

My searching hasn’t uncovered any turnkey solutions involving RFID chemical tracking — but it must be possible if not feasible.  After all, manufacturing operations and logistics companies have been employing this sort of technology for years.

Readers, what’s the best inventory system you’ve seen employed?  Have you ever seen a system that manages to solve both the granularity problem and the compliance problem simultaneously?


*There are inventory management systems that are not useful, and serve simply to allow administration to be in regulatory compliance.

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