There are few places as dynamic and constantly evolving as a modern research laboratory. Projects are added or amended while others are discontinued, personnel come and go as students graduate and postdocs move on to other endeavors, and most importantly, specimens, reagents and other samples are in a continuous cycle of depletion and renewal. Maintaining viable stocks of research supplies is one of the great challenges, and keys, to running a successful lab. Without them, scientists simply couldn’t perform their experiments. Yet order and management remains one of the most ubiquitous frustrations in labs, large and small. From our interactions and discussions with scientists at conferences all over the world, here are some of the biggest areas of concern:
1. General Inventory Management
Different specialties have different inventory requirements—a life sciences lab might have to manage lots of specimen and biochemistry reagents, while a traditional synthetic chemistry lab might need to organize libraries of compounds and starting chemicals. Irrespective of scientific discipline, labs often have a hard time organizing inventory and keeping it up to date. Do you organize on an Excel spreadsheet? An inter-laboratory software program? How do you integrate new orders with existing samples and keep inventory completely up to date?
2. Sample Duplicates
Especially in very large (or industry) labs, this can be a common problem. Certain subgroups or experimenters might require their own pools of a certain reagent even if it’s a common lab reagent. Other times, paranoid researchers insist on having their own stocks of everything to make sure they’re kept properly sterile. Either way, duplication of common reagent stocks, especially without updating databases, can make tracking supplies difficult.
3. Expiration Dates and Life Cycles.
This is a huge concern for life sciences labs, where almost all daily reagents, buffers, enzymes and antibodies must be up to date for optimal results. How often have we all reached in the back of the freezer for the next step of an incubation only to realize that the sample is no longer good? This is wasteful and causes time delays in lost experimentation. Ideally, it would be great to pair expiration dates with general inventory management, so that locating a necessary reagent or specimen would also tell you if it’s up to date. Furthermore, if you know an expiration date is rapidly approaching for a necessary component, you can easily reorder it in time. Tracking life cycles of laboratory chemicals and other reagents also includes waste and disposal, which can become much more cumbersome (and dangerous!) if they are allowed to sit long after they expire.
4. Depleted Supplies and Special Orders/MTAs
One of the most frustrating things to any lab manager is not having command over how many materials the group has in stock and when it is time to reorder. More often than not, the first time a manager is made aware of a need for more of a particular reagent is when a furious lab member is demanding to know why it wasn’t ordered days or weeks ago. Lab communication between managers and scientists is an essential aspect of maintaining a constant supply of reagents and specimen, particularly if a certain sample was obtained via collaboration, a rare order, or required a time-consuming MTA to facilitate.
5. Communal Buffers and Solutions
Labs will often save money by making their own stocks of common buffers, agar plates, LB broth, cell culture media and other consumables. But just as with ordering, improper lab communication often means depleted group stocks (always on the day you have to do an experiment!), lack of clear guidelines as to whose responsibility it is to make more, and problems with expiration and quality control testing of stocks for viability.
6. Non-Adherence to Laboratory Database
Naturally, all of the organizational frustrations described above are eschewed by the implementation of a laboratory-wide management system. Unfortunately, many labs have a difficult time enforcing uniform participation, either because the system is too complicated to use, too expensive, or isn’t easily integrated into all personnel machines, especially with many grad students and post-docs owning their own machines.
Based on our recent lab survey, over 50% of labs waste money on duplicate orders, with the vast majority of researchers feeling that their labs are not efficiently managed. PIs end up spending precious grant money on wasteful orders, laboratory managers feel overwhelmed with an inefficient system and angry scientists wanting to know where their materials are. And frustrated grad students and postdocs cannot get experiments done or papers published in a timely manner.
A viable solution (and we're being like, totally unbiased here) is Labguru. We recently launched a new lab inventory management module, which lets researchers search for products from a database of over 80,000 reagents, as well as use a shopping list to place requests, approvals and monitor pending orders.
And please let us know if you have any other major order and management frustrations for us to add to our list by leaving us a comment below. We’re always looking for ways to help scientists by making a better product so you can do more science!