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Placing orders for lab materials

As recently noted, orders or purchase management is one of those pesky little tasks that involves quite a bit of bureaucracy, patience and time (and that most students shy away from as quickly as possible). Broadly speaking, two management schemes exist:

  • A central one which involves a lab manager or administrative personnel who takes orders from the researchers
  • A peripheral one, which lays the responsibility of material ordering on the shoulders of each researcher.

Of course, both have their pros and cons:

Centralized Lab Ordering System

A proficient administrator can save a lot of time for the "on-the-bench techies", is more experienced in getting good deals (and is familiar with the market!), will eliminate any duplicate ordering and essentially will be more focused, and thus more efficient in order management. In addition, there is better financial control and management since it is accessible to only a few of the lab's staff (no students allowed!). On the con side, when the administrator goes on a vacation or is ill, the lab orders might be hectic or problematic. In addition, centralized ordering schemes might require the techies to arrange their orders in advance if the administrator acts also as the principal lab technician.

Decentralized Lab Ordering System

The peripheral ordering scheme is totally dependent on the techie, whether a masters student or a veteran post-doc.  The fund's allocation are available to everyone and most often orders can be done instantaneously without the need to "ask for favors" or getting on your knees to get that precious enzyme (unless your PI or lab manager micromanages your orders and then you should prepare for explanation and defend your request). On the other hand, this scheme can wreck havoc on any kind of financial planning, management and control. Actually, it is very hard to maintain any control when the funds are within the reach of the lab members - it requires highly trustworthy members with relatively high awareness of financial budgeting and saving. Even a $1.5 million grant can run dry eventually, and it can happen quite fast when its accessible to many users. Additionally, the chances for duplicate ordering and bought samples are quite high – usually, in such labs it can be quite easy to see several copies of the same Taq DNA polymerase tube spread around each student's box (which can be very good in case of a contamination!). Note that duplicates are especially problematic with solutions, enzymes, proteins, and chemicals that come with expiry dates.

Combined Ordering System

A combination of a central and peripheral schemes. The students order what they need from the vendors by themselves and the lab manager surpervises each order before it is finally sent out. Essentially this hybrid scheme wastes most of the time for both the students and the staff as the work is done twice (checking that the order is OK and that the ordered resource is not already on the shelf).  On the other side, it makes making a mistake less likely as two persons independently check the order and its validity.

How does your lab manage orders? Let us know in the comments below!