In an age of electronic databases and barcode scanning, maintaining inventory accuracy should be simple. Vials are put in a freezer and the location is recorded in a database. How could sample storage be complicated?
It’s true that technology has improved efficiency and accuracy in the management of all types of inventory. However, whether the inventory in question is lego blocks or vials of blood, inventory management is more complicated than it seems. Even with the most sophisticated electronic tools, multiple challenges remain.
Last August we introduced a new content series called InsideAccess to give you inside look into our operations and processes. In this edition of InsideAccess we'll take a look at the challenges involved in maintaining inventory accuracy and some of the tools we use in working toward our goal of absolute, 100%, accuracy in our operations.
Fisher BioServices has provided biorepository storage for three decades, and we manage many legacy collections of samples with handwritten labels. In fact, we still receive significant numbers of vials with labels that lack barcodes.
Transfers to a different storage unit occur because of mechanical failure and as part of normal equipment replacement. Freezers have a useful lifetime of 10 to 15 years, and millions of the samples we store have been relocated multiple times to new equipment. Many of these events involved manual data entry. Even with barcode scanners, moving samples to a different unit requires a demanding level of accuracy. The receiving freezers, whether a replacement unit or a back-up unit, are seldom configured in the same way as the original freezer, and transfers are rarely a one-to-one location swap. For instance, when older and smaller 25 ft3 freezers (which can hold more than 38,000 2 mL vials) are decommissioned, they are replaced with high-efficiency 32 ft3 capacity units. Two new freezers replace three older ones, so this transfer can involve moving well over 110,000 samples, in more than 1,400 2-inch cryoboxes, from the original three freezers and then placing them in two different freezers. That constitutes 1,400 opportunities for error. Did I mention they have to be maintained at the correct temperature during this process?
Tracking parent / child aliquots:
Unlike manufacturing and many other operations, what we receive and what we store are often not the same. We receive parent samples, and upload data specific to a set of vials, which may then cease to exist. The parent tubes are processed and divided in a number of ways—serum, plasma, DNA/RNA, and others—and aliquoted. There is frequently no one-to-one correlation between vials received and vials in storage. Tracking software has to be robust.
Since the availability of VisiCalc (remember VisiCalc?) in the late 1970s, followed by Lotus, Excel, and now cloud computing, databases and IT systems have exploded in capability. Anyone who has had more than one cell phone is familiar with the challenge of transferring data.
To read more about these challenges, the importance of accuracy, and how automation technology can help, download this edition of InsideAccess: Maintaining Inventory Accuracy.