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How to organize your lab purchases and inventory

How to organize your lab purchases and inventory

Good lab inventory management can save you time, money and frustration.Credit: Getty

“Did the new antibodies arrive?” one of us (C.M.T.) asked.

“Yes!” replied N.J.S., opening the fridge to show her where they were.

Direct communication worked great in this scenario. But N.J.S., who divides her time between the main laboratory, the cell-culture room and the core facilities, isn’t always available to help. If she cannot physically show someone where an item is located, how will they find it amid a sea of freezer boxes? And if she unpacks a newly received item, how will the person who ordered it know that it’s arrived? One day it clicked: there is a better way to organize our lab’s purchasing and inventory.

These days, journals and funding agencies expect extensive documentation of research methods. With published protocols, extended methods and detailed reagent lists required for manuscript submissions, now is the time to better manage your lab inventory. We think it is each researcher’s responsibility to organize this information so that scientists — colleagues as well as the wider community — can have the technical information necessary to build on discoveries when they are published.

We created a master spreadsheet that transformed our inventory management. Clearly, there’s an unmet need for such tools: when C.M.T. discussed the strategy on Twitter, the thread received more than 300,000 views. Since then, we have shared our spreadsheet with more than 500 labs across 20 countries. Here, we highlight steps scientists can take to better organize their lab ordering and inventories.

Assess your needs

Start by determining what works and what doesn’t in the way your lab is organized overall. We suggest doing this in a group meeting where all lab members, from the most junior researcher to the principal investigator, can express their opinions. Questions to consider include:• What information would make it simpler to reorder commonly used items?• What information needs to be documented for each purchase?• Where will items be stored?

Create a plan

For our lab, documenting the details of commercially available materials has enhanced experimental design, saved money and created an educational resource for early-career scientists. Our purchasing spreadsheet also functions as an inventory system because of the information we include for each item. Here are some details to consider documenting:

• Catalogue numbers, vendors and product web pages. This simplifies reordering and allows researchers to review product details easily if more information is needed to support an experiment — for instance, the host species that generates an antibody, or the fluorescent tag to which that antibody is attached.

• Lot numbers. The efficacy of certain materials, such as growth factors and cell-culture reagents, differs between lots. We suggest logging the lot or batch numbers associated with each order, in case of experimental variability. Each order gets its own row in our spreadsheet, so no data are overwritten when new orders are placed.

• Storage location. This tells lab members where to store materials when they arrive and allows them to be found again later.

• Order status. Knowing whether an item has been ordered, is back ordered (with an estimated delivery date) or has arrived allows members to track key materials and to plan their work accordingly.

• Vendor order number/purchase order number. This helps researchers and administrators to request updates on the status of orders from vendors, and helps with budgeting for current and proposed projects.

Implement a system

Although commercial lab-inventory platforms are available, such as Quartzy and LabSpend, a home-grown system can ensure longevity — not to mention protection against abrupt third-party feature changes and price increases. We acknowledge that, for some labs, the convenience of a commercial system could outweigh the cost savings and easy maintenance of a home-grown system. However, for labs operating on a tight budget, paying a monthly fee to use a commercial platform might simply not be possible.

Our lab uses a Google spreadsheet to track purchases and inventory. We recently made it freely available through Organizō, a company that C.M.T. established in February to provide lab-organization tools.

The spreadsheet implements several useful features, such as simple formulae to monitor spending. Using sorting functions, we can determine how much we have spent on specific grants. We implement drop-down menus, tags and colour coding to visualize important information, such as order status. Our spreadsheet is also easy to share through a lab Google account so that all members have up-to-date information. Department administrators have told us that our system is useful for those who complete ordering for several labs; simply add a ‘Lab PI’ column (indicating which one the order is for) to streamline ordering and organization for multiple groups. Our purchasing spreadsheet also serves as an inventory list because we can view what items were ordered in the past and where they are stored; this can be helpful in meeting institutional health and safety requirements.

Edit to fit

As new lab members begin to use the system, there will inevitably be things they don’t like. One of the benefits of a personalized system is that we can edit it to fit our needs at any time. Everybody can have input into how the system is moulded, and you are not locked into any features that don’t work for your lab.

Reinforce and maintain

After doing the hard work of building a system that is just right for your lab, the challenge becomes one of maintenance. Ensuring the system is updated regularly is crucial to keeping information current and accurate. Assigning specific tasks to individual lab members has benefited our lab. For example, all lab members can add items to the spreadsheet to be ordered, but only the lab manager can submit orders, to prevent duplicate purchases. The lab manager also updates the spreadsheet with vendor order and purchase order numbers as these are generated.

Tasks such as updating the spreadsheet when items arrive are shared between lab members. When an item is unpacked, the person who does so is expected to mark their initials on the spreadsheet and indicate where the item was stored. Maintaining a lab system requires teamwork and commitment.

The bottom line is that your lab has agency in deciding how to manage purchases and inventory. We recommend taking a moment to consider your options and decide what is best for your group, on the basis of ease of use, price and upkeep. Our spreadsheet works for us, but it will not work for everyone. Whatever approach you take, however, ordering and inventory management can optimize research productivity and make precious lab funding go as far as possible.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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