Chemical Sourcing, Streamlined
Navigating the challenges of sourcing chemicals in the lab
Dave Haase | | 7 min read | Practical
In the day-to-day operation of a laboratory, the sourcing of chemicals plays an integral role. Chemicals form the backbone of tests, experiments, and procedures. Moreover, the quality, availability, and timely procurement of these substances can significantly impact laboratory outcomes. The process of chemical sourcing is riddled with complexities, including regulatory compliance, logistics, and their impact on laboratory work.
Understanding the challenges
Pathology labs face an uphill climb as they navigate through the twists and turns of sourcing chemicals. They must grapple with complex laws and stringent guidelines, while also ensuring efficient inventory management and reliable logistics.
1. Regulatory compliance
For laboratory operations, regulatory compliance is a pervasive challenge. Navigating the regulations that govern the sourcing, handling, storage, and disposal of chemicals can be a daunting task.
Various regulatory bodies enforce rules that, while essential for safety and environmental protection, can be complex and multifaceted. These regulations vary locally and internationally, adding another layer of complexity. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties including heavy fines, reputational damage, and cessation of operations.
The case of FedEx from 2014 is a potent example of the ramifications of non-compliance. The global courier company, despite not being directly involved in chemical sourcing, was fined $1.75 million for improper handling of hazardous materials shipments, which included laboratory chemicals. The incident underscores the critical importance of compliance, which extends beyond those sourcing the chemicals to the intermediaries in the process.
2. Logistical issues
Logistical challenges are the next major hurdle in lab chemical sourcing. Inventory management is a fine balancing act. Labs must constantly strive for a balance between overstocking, which can lead to wastage and increased storage costs, and understocking, which can disrupt the flow of laboratory procedures due to the unavailability of necessary chemicals.
The process of moving chemicals from the source to the laboratory, and then storing them correctly, comes with its own set of problems:
- Delays in delivery can halt progress on critical projects, leading to missed deadlines and financial losses.
- Unstable storage conditions can degrade the quality of certain chemicals, thereby affecting the accuracy of lab procedures.
- Specialized storage and transport facilities that ensure the safety and stability of chemicals often come with a high price tag, leading to increased operational costs.
- Certain chemicals, particularly rare or restricted ones, can be challenging to source, and this can limit the scope of research and diagnostic work in the laboratory.
The importance of timely and safe delivery of chemicals cannot be overstated: it is a critical factor of lab operations that can determine the success of sensitive diagnostics and research.
3. The impact on laboratory work
Challenges in chemical sourcing can significantly impact the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and quality of laboratory work. As noted, delays in the delivery of chemicals can halt research and diagnostic procedures, leading to a ripple effect of missed deadlines and inefficiencies. The cost of sourcing, particularly when dealing with regulatory compliance, storage, and transportation, can substantially add to the lab’s operational costs.
Quality and safety are cornerstones of laboratory work. If the chemicals sourced are of inferior quality due to improper handling or storage, it can compromise the safety of lab personnel and the quality of lab procedures.
What may appear to be minor hurdles can collectively result in a significant decline in lab productivity and efficiency. Pathology labs might find themselves spending more time, resources, and energy on managing challenges than focusing on the core tasks of research and diagnostics.
The role of technology
Technology has a vital role to play in solving some of the most pressing challenges in lab chemical sourcing. In regulatory compliance, automated tracking and reporting tools have simplified maintaining compliance and minimized human error (see Box: Software and Systems).
Software and Systems
i. Regulatory compliance management software automates the process of compliance, tracking any changes in regulations, and ensuring that the laboratory's practices stay aligned with these changes. It can significantly reduce the time and resources required for manual tracking and compliance checks.
ii. Chemical inventory management systems help pathology labs track the quantities and location of chemicals in real time, which can assist in ensuring compliance with regulations regarding storage and usage limits.
iii. Safety data sheets (SDS) management systems allow for quick access, regular updates, and easy sharing of crucial safety information, ensuring that all personnel have the latest information about the chemicals they are handling.
iv. Lab safety management applications can provide a comprehensive solution for lab safety, including compliance with regulations, tracking of safety incidents, and staff training.
The role of technology extends to tackling logistical issues. The Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing inventory management in pathology labs. IoT devices can provide real-time data on stock levels, expiry dates, and usage rates of chemicals – data that can be used to optimize reordering processes, reducing the chances of overstocking or running out of essential chemicals.
There are also technological innovations that enhance the transportation and storage of chemicals. For example, advanced temperature and humidity control systems can ensure that chemicals are stored in optimal conditions. Similarly, developments in secure and safe transportation methods can ensure the integrity of chemicals during transit. Such innovations can help labs overcome some of the critical challenges in chemical sourcing.
The power of collaboration
The challenges of chemical sourcing demand collaboration between many stakeholders, including manufacturers, suppliers, transporters, laboratory personnel, and regulatory bodies. By pooling resources and expertise, these stakeholders can create robust, efficient, and safe systems for sourcing, handling, storing, and disposing of lab chemicals.
Effective collaboration hinges on open communication, mutual trust, and shared objectives. Regular meetings, shared digital platforms, and cooperative planning can help. But understanding and respecting each other’s roles, responsibilities, and challenges is a prerequisite for working together and creating more streamlined sourcing systems.
One great example of collaboration is the partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and global healthcare company Novartis. In 2018, these two organizations partnered to create a supply chain for specific lab chemicals required for their joint research projects. The resulting customized delivery schedules ensured that necessary chemicals were always available when needed.
Another example of collaboration in action is the use of the CDD (Collaborative Drug Discovery) Vault Collaborative Platform in 2020. Several diagnostic labs, including global giants like Novartis and Pfizer, began using this shared digital platform for managing and sharing Safety Data Sheets. This initiative enables the participating entities to remain compliant and improve safety – and it presents a practical illustration of the power of digital collaboration in chemical sourcing.
Future trends and strategies for streamlined sourcing
As we look towards the future, four key trends promise to reshape the landscape of lab chemical sourcing:
1. Increased digitization.
We can anticipate further digitization of sourcing processes, including expanded use of digital marketplaces for sourcing, tracking, managing, and disposing of chemicals, and greater reliance on AI for tasks such as demand forecasting and regulatory compliance.
2. Greener sourcing.
The push for sustainability is felt in all business sectors. We can expect to see more emphasis on sourcing chemicals that are environmentally friendly, accompanied by greener methods of transportation and disposal.
3. Decentralized sourcing.
Other technologies enable labs to produce some of their chemicals in-house, reducing the need for transportation and storage and allowing for greater customization.
4. Increased collaboration.
Collaboration is key to efficient sourcing; in the future, we can expect more collaboration both within organizations (between different labs) and between different organizations (for example, shared digital platforms for managing SDS).
But these trends also pose challenges that labs will need to prepare for; for example, the need for new skills and systems to manage digitization; new criteria for selecting suppliers; new equipment for the in-house production of chemicals; and new strategies for collaboration. By anticipating trends and preparing for them, pathology labs can be ready to take full advantage of the opportunities that the future holds for streamlined sourcing.
Dave Haase has been a leader for nearly 20 years in consumer products and pharmaceuticals and now runs ChemDirect, a consumer marketplace for Chemicals.