Chemical laboratories, whether academic, business, or government-based, improve our lives by developing new products, fostering medical advances, and training tomorrow’s scientists. In addition to the work of innovation, labs need to keep track of up to of thousands of chemicals in multiple structures and rooms, while ensuring they are stored in the proper environments and away from incompatible substances.
The need for these labs to maintain accurate inventories has grown more acute, as the imperatives of cost control and time management have been joined by more stringent government regulations, spurred in part by the threat of terrorism.
This combination of challenges has left labs searching for effective solutions that fit their unique needs and circumstances while not requiring prohibitive financial, technical, and time commitments. Evolving technology has provided alternatives to the inefficient and error-prone process of taking inventory manually. Some labs, for example, have turned to barcode systems. But barcode scanning, while more efficient than a fully manual process, is still time-consuming. Even with an established barcode configuration, EPA-mandated inventory tasks can tie up staff for a month or more, particularly in organizations with multiple labs in different locations. Further, barcode scanning requires the handling of volatile chemicals—introducing the risk of both hazardous conditions and loss through breakage.
Barcode scanning also doesn’t provide accurate and easily-retrievable (or real-time) location information. For chemicals that may require more stringent storage environments or isolation from certain other chemicals, this information can be essential. Finally, a challenge that impacts labs, regardless of size, is time management.
Networked solutions, however, can come with their problems. Software security is an increasing concern in the chemical lab space, as with other, equally sensitive industries. High-profile hacks of software and systems have peppered the news recently, including takeovers of government systems, oil refineries, and the world’s largest meat processing company—to name a few.
While there are some commonalities in the inventory and tracking needs of chemical labs, each has its particular requirements based on its specific purpose and sector. Because of this, any technological solution needs to provide an appropriate degree of customization. Unfortunately, many “off the shelf” solutions only provide an “as is” approach.
Is there an easily customizable inventory solution, provides real-time accuracy in count and location, efficiency in entry cost and worker hours required, and a high level of security?
Fortunately, there is: Portable Technology Solution’s TracerPlus Mobile Application Development Software. And it’s being used by some of the nation’s most prominent chemical labs.
Andrew Peterson, Environment, Health, and Safety Manager, at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was looking for a more efficient way to track chemicals within its large inventory of over 60,000 containers. They were using barcodes, but he had a hunch that RFID would be a safer and more efficient way to manage their inventory.
In doing research, Peterson initially reached out to handheld RFID reader manufacturer Zebra. Kristin Comeau, Senior Sales Representative for PTS and TracerPlus introduced him to the engineering staff at PTS,who worked with him to tailor PTS’s TracerPlus software to the specific needs he articulated. From there, Peterson agreed to do a pilot using TracerPlus and two Zebra MC333R RFID scanners with 100 containers in a specific lab. He saw the potential immediately with the speed of reconciliations when he read 40 chemicals in a matter of seconds.
It was a similar situation for Matthew Allen, Director of Chemical Stores, Handling and Safety at Brigham Young University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Allen was looking for options to speed up the process of handling and scanning every bottle in the department. His inspiration to seek an RFID solution came from seeing firsthand the speed with which RFID processed books at a local library.
Aside from the increased safety and efficiency offered by RFID scanning, Allen was impressed with the ease with which he was able to customize TracerPlus to work with the department’s particular needs, along with its current inventory system and its associated hardware.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s and Brigham Young University’s experiences with TracerPlus provide but two examples of the results chemical labs have gained from adopting TracerPlus. With an RFID tagging system and the flexibility of TracerPlus, labs are saving time and money, increasing safety, and gaining the peace of mind that their systems and data are protected with TracerPlus software designed, coded, and maintained within the United States.
This means staff can focus on advancing critical projects instead of conducting manual inventories or wasting time looking for misplaced chemicals. It means funds can be applied to critical projects instead of inventory and loss recovery.
In the case of Brigham Young University, there are tangible numbers to quantify results. In one of their more manageable labs, an inventory of a few hundred chemicals that once took two people working for two days… can now be completed by one person in 15 minutes.
With RFID tagging in labs still in a growth trajectory, short-term plans for many labs are to continue tagging existing and incoming inventories with RFID and further customizing their TracerPlus experience to get the most out of their investment.
Many labs, including Brigham Young, are expanding their control by implementing a “Geiger Counter” feature, which enables an RFID scanner to search for a misplaced chemical, by literally leading the user to the tagged container in question.
In the future, the industry could see increased implementation of PTS’ ClearStream RFID software along with fixed readers, which will automatically recognize and record the movement of RFID-tagged containers as they are physically moved from one lab to another. With the combination of ClearStream RFID software and fixed readers installed at exits and entrances of labs, day-to-day locational tracking of inventory becomes fully automated.