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Inventory management insights from an early Quartzy employee –– Quartzy Senior Product Manager, Chris Tappe

Discussion on different use cases for lab inventory management systems, as well as practical methods for staying on top of lab inventory.

By Aoi Senju in Interviews

Chris Tappe is a Senior Product Manager at Quartzy. In this interview, he shares customer insights that he's picked up from his time at Quartzy. He also explores different use cases for lab inventory management systems, as well as practical methods to stay on top of lab inventory.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aoi: Chris, can you tell me a little bit about your scientific background and your journey to Quartzy?

Chris: I'm Chris Tappe, senior product manager at Quartzy. I have two degrees, one in biochemistry and the other in cell and molecular biology. After college, I worked at a medical school as a lab technician at the University of Minnesota Duluth. As a lab technician, I was doing a little bit of the ordering, a little bit of the inventory management. And I was really interested in seeing how we could streamline this process. It was a lot of paperwork and a lot of manual tedious work that nobody really enjoyed doing. So I started looking into how we could incorporate software.

That's how I came across Quartzy originally. I thought they were doing something really unique, and I became so interested in their approach that I ended up just applying to go work there. I started working at Quartzy on their quotes team. So scientists would put in a request for something like DMEM. And I would search through our list of approved vendors and try to find the best possible price and the best possible fulfillment experience for them. And then we would present those options to the scientists.

After that, I started working on the product management side to scale our quotes team. So, building out the tools and the software we needed internally so that we could make more quotes, get better deals, better prices, manage bigger catalogs, and things like that.

From there, I transitioned full-time into product management, now more on the user-facing side of things. So I manage the inventory module and the requests module at Quartzy and try to just streamline that whole flow of, "What do I have on hand? When am I running low and how can I get more of it?"

Aoi: You've likely observed a number of different use cases for Quartzy among your users. How does each company manage inventory differently? Do different industries manage inventory differently? Does industry and academia manage inventory differently?

Chris: In terms of use cases, sometimes the lab manager will care very strongly about "What do I have on hand and where can I find it?" That's a common use case. It seems pretty obvious, but trying to track, "If you're looking for this specific antibody, you can find it in this room, in this minus 80 freezer, on this shelf and in this cell of the box," is important, because if you've been in the lab and you've looked in the freezer, there's a lot of stuff in those freezers. And there's usually a lot of freezers.

The ease of access and actually being able to utilize the things that you have on hand is one of the reasons you have an inventory system. So that I don't have to go ask the lab manager, "Hey, where is this specific antibody?" I can look for it and find it myself.

A different, and distinct, use case as a lab manager is to make sure that people don't run out of the supplies they need to do their experiments. I may manage a stockroom and I want to keep track of what's on hand in that stockroom because I'm responsible for making sure that our experiments keep going without a delay.

One use case is we see somebody take a pack of 25-milliliter pipettes, they take it out of the stockroom and bring it to a point of use area; it's depleted but we don't count that in the inventory; let's decrement the count from there.

Sometimes they'll track it where I'll transfer from the stockroom to the point of use area to Chris's shelf, let's say, and then, ideally, my software system can tell me that I've got pipettes on Chris's shelf, I've got some in the stockroom, and I've got them all over the place. That becomes really handy if you have any kind of chemicals that are hazardous items, and are going to be subject to compliance regulations. If you're storing flammable chemicals, hazardous chemicals, there's a limit to how much you can have in one location. So, there's another use-case for "How many liters of ethanol do I have in the flammables cabinet, and how many do I have across the whole department?"

To summarize, "can I find what I need," is a common use case; "let's make sure I know what I have on hand," is a common use case; and "make sure that I'm compliant with my inventory" is a common use case. Associated with that, you'll see people storing SDS documents from a compliance perspective.

One interesting thing that I've picked up from our customers. Our customers, when they're using their inventory, they want to track usage associated with a project or department. And they're doing that at the inventory usage level. So they may place a bulk order of ethanol, and that'll be associated with a general research budget. But then when it actually gets used, then they're going to say that, okay, in the last month, 25 liters were used for Project A, 50 liters were used for Project B and they subdivide it when it's actually being used.

I think that's kind of interesting because, in academia, a lot of the time you see the grant-tracking and all the budgeting that happens is upstream of that. Then when I buy my reagents, that's when I'm linking it to the associated grants.

I'd say, generally, across industries, therapeutics companies versus cannabis companies, for example, they have a lot of the same processes. They want to know "Where can I find my items so that I can use them effectively." Something like an environmental testing company or an oil and gas company, they probably care less about where exactly can I find my reagents and care more about the compliance side of things.

Aoi: Is there anything that you think scientists care too much about that doesn't really matter? Or do you think there's anything they don't care enough about that they should be caring about?

Chris: When I was working as a scientist, I didn't really appreciate how much of a role the actual procurement function plays in inventory. There's a whole chain of events that happens to get those pipettes on your shelf so that you can use them. That's something that anybody who's started placing orders with scientific vendors will run into.

That planning process that goes into the procurement flow is really important. Forecasting out how much I'm going to be using in the next week or a couple of weeks. There's a whole lifetime that happens between getting your purchase order approved, and getting it sent to the vendor and processed. Sometimes it takes a while to actually ship your items. Sometimes it takes a week or more to get the items that you wouldn't have expected until you've been involved with the ordering process.

A lot of times people will think of their inventory as a static view, "where can I find my things and how much is left?" But in reality, I think of it as a flow, that: I want to know where my items are so that I can go and use them effectively; then at some point they'll be running low and I need to know that so that somebody can order more; and then that flows into the whole procurement process and you need to plan for that.

And I think that's another big mistake is again, discounting procurement and its impact on inventory. Because then once you place your orders, you receive your orders, then it gets put back into inventory, and it's a flow; it's a cycle. At Quartzy, we draw it out all the time in this circle, like that. Your inventory can't be up to date if you forget about it as soon as it's running low.

Aoi: And so oftentimes you'll need to have a point person who is on top of procurement and inventory and what have you, right?

Chris: Absolutely. We refer to them as lab managers. Lab managers feel like they're functioning at their optimum capacity when scientists just do science and they can handle everything else.

We've done some research on this. It's about 50/50, where when a scientist pulls up a pack of pipettes off the shelf, it's a 50/50 if a lab manager wants them to mark down that they took the pack of pipettes so that the inventory count is up-to-date. And 50/50, the other way, that they don't even want them involved in the inventory counting process. They just want them doing science and it's their job to make sure that the counts are up-to-date.

Aoi: Which side do you fall on? Do you think that the lab manager should be doing all of this, or do you think the scientists have a role to play in all of this too?

Chris: I think if your inventory management system is configured in an easy-to-manage way, then I think everybody should be involved in keeping it up to date because it's a lot of work to try to go through and reconcile everything.

I think the ideal scenario is it's really easy for me as a scientist to update my system and say, "I just took this bottle of DMEM. So the count should be updated." I'm of the opinion that barcoding is going to become really useful for this type of thing. You see retail stores doing this a lot now, not just in the back fulfillment centers, but they can tell you that there are six chairs are up here in this specific location, for the customers to find, because they track when a customer buys it and they track when somebody pulls it from the back stockroom and puts it on the shelf. That's where I personally expect the inventory management function to go.

If somebody has built a system that's easy enough for everybody to make these updates, scientists would be doing that as well. We're working on a mobile app at Quartzy to do this and designing it in a way that it'll work for the lab manager or for the scientists. Sometimes scientists or even lab managers don't keep an accurate count of their inventory because there's not a super easy and efficient way to do so. I probably don't have my laptop with me in the stock room, so I'm not going to log it into my inventory management system and decrement that I took this case out with me. And I'm not going to remember when I get back to my desk later. So if I had an easy solution to do that, that changes the conversation.

Aoi: You mentioned earlier barcodes as one way to stay on top of your inventory. Is there any other underappreciated way for a scientist to stay on top of their inventory?

Chris: I think Kanban is a good solution if you're going for something low tech. Coupled with doing some type of a regular walk around. If you don't have a lab manager dedicated to this, there should be a rotating function for the scientists in the lab that once a day or twice a week walk through the point-of-use areas and just make a note, like, "okay, we're almost out of gloves, so we're going to have to order more," or like, "The cases of pipettes are running low, somebody is going to have to go and order more." So if you don't have the high-tech software solution, the idea of walking around visually observing it is absolutely better than just waiting until you're running out.

And that's where the idea of Kanban and the cards come into play. Where if you've got something stacked up nice and neatly on a rack, you put the marker on the backside of that rack. And so that when you pull it out, eventually you see a big green card or a big red card that says, okay, that's my warning to order more. And ideally, you know how much you're going to go through. We go through three boxes of gloves per week, and we've got six, and so if we assume that it takes a week to get our order of gloves, and you want a week buffer, I'll put that card in the middle. So after I pull three boxes of gloves out, I know to order more, and as soon as they order more, you replace the card and the cycle continues.

Kanban cards is very nice because it gives you that visual indicator, "this thing is running low." And I don't have to do a bunch of math and try to plan out ahead of time if you already have the cards placed at the right intervals.

Aoi: What do you think is the biggest learning curve for inventory management for scientists?

Chris: You have to balance how much space you have with how much you're trying to order. Ideally, I could order three months' worth of all of my common-use supplies and store them in one giant warehouse, because then there's much less pressure about running low because I know we've got this great big backstock of my items. Also, if I'm ordering in bulk, usually I can get a pretty good discount.

But you really have to balance, how much do you actually need versus how much space you have. And that's a challenge. That's something that there are no easy answers for. And everybody learns what works for their lab and for their physical space. During the pandemic, people really ran into this where if they were able to get an order to actually go through, they would try to order as much as they could, because they didn't know the next time they'd be able to place an order. And so I saw people putting in boxes of cases of pipettes and culture flasks and storing them in something like a janitor's closet, or they would pile them in the corner of an equipment room and stack them up there.

Ideally, everybody's got a great, big, huge stock room that they can leverage, but I don't think I've ever talked to a customer who was happy with the amount of storage space that they had. And so there's a skill to balance how many orders I'm placing per week to make sure that I don't run out of my items, versus, placing large orders and storing them wherever I can.

Aoi: What are some challenges that companies face when they're ordering new materials that they might not have ordered before?

Chris: There are challenges when ordering from a brand new vendor. They're going to need proof of residency. If you're ordering any kind of controlled substance, they're going to need your TEA forms. Just proving that you are actually buying these things and using them legitimately is always a hurdle. We run into that with our customers all the time. And so that's a big challenge documentation-wise and setting up vendor accounts.

The other thing is when you're buying something brand new, you don't necessarily know how long it's going to take. Generally speaking, it's hard to have a super-accurate view of delivery timeframes in our industry. Some vendors are great about it. Some are less great. I know that there were some kind of HPLC columns or something like that, our customers would place an order. And then they had to be shipped from Sweden overseas. And then, they had to be taken off the pallet and broken apart, and then shipped from there.

If that's the first time you've ordered that specific HPLC column, and if your vendor didn't tell you ahead of time, you might be a little surprised when it ends up taking a full month for you to actually receive your item.

Aoi: What have you changed your mind about inventory management? What do you think less experienced scientists might not understand about how to do lab inventory management?

Chris: This is a point of debate even at Quartzy. The original position I held is it's not possible to keep an accurate inventory count for all of your items. And the reason that that belief has prevailed is if you think of something like a bottle of DMEM the idea was always that when somebody decides to use it, or maybe, maybe some powder chemical, like sodium hydroxide. If you take a couple of grams out of the bottle, nobody wants to go and mark that down. Nobody's going to go and like manually log into an inventory system and say, we went from 100 grams of sodium hydroxide, and now there are 97 grams. Because there's just not a ton of utility in doing that, at least for that individual event.

Over time, you want to know that though, over time, if that was happening, then you would know when you're running low and when you need to reorder it.

So that was always the position is that nobody's ever going to do that. And to some degree, that may be true, but I think technology is going to catch up and make it so that it's not really a problem anymore. I think it's going to be a combination of barcode scanning will really help that; if the lab manager institutes a policy that when you use something, scan it, mark it, you're done, that doesn't take that much time. And then everybody can contribute to the lab running smoothly. I also think that electronic lab notebooks are gonna help here significantly in the future. I think if somebody defines a protocol within their ELN and says, "Hey, you know, use three grams of sodium hydroxide to prepare this reagent. This solution, whatever, it might be." When you do that, if you have an integration between your ELN and inventory system, you run your protocol, you log that it happened, and then you can automatically deduct what your inventory is. And so that's the thing that I've changed my mind about; that it wasn't possible to keep an accurate inventory. I think it's always been possible. It just hasn't really been worth the effort. And I think technology is going to continue progressing such that it will be the norm to have these accurate inventory counts and things like that.

Aoi: Chris, thanks so much for the time. I really appreciate it.

Chris: Happy to help. Thank you for reaching out.


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