Breaking down organizational tasks into chunks will help your lab run better

You’re about to screen a potential cancer-fighting compound using antisense oligonucleotides. You check your supplies and realize you’re out of oligos. You consult your inventory list and realize no one has authorized a new shipment. So you call your supplier, only to find out the oligos are on back order. It will take days to process the request, days more to ship and days more for the delivery to arrive—if you’re lucky. You’ve just set your lab back at least a week.

This nightmare scenario need not happen. Keeping track of lab supplies can be overwhelming. But letting this management task go could mean not having the right materials for experiments. That costs time and money—and leads to frustration. To make your lab run smoothly, break down inventory management into smaller pieces.


Taking a laboratory inventory is the biggest, hardest step. Take stock of everything in your lab. Use lab management software to stay on task. A real-time, web-based system will help you be methodical and thorough.


Ask what is being used. By whom? How often? Evaluate what products you use daily, weekly, monthly. Consider what products you reorder most and ask yourself if there is anything you need to throw out due to expiration. Think about your current project’s needs, and whether and how often you will need to reorder key items. Update your electronic lab notebook.


Get rid of out-of-date products. Also look for items that have gone largely unused. If you find yourself throwing out large quantities of a particular supply, reconsider bulk purchases. Remember, shelf space is valuable. And you aren’t saving money by buying en masse if you toss most of the order.


Group your supplies by usage and by type of storage. Make sure everything is stored at the proper temperature. Put the most-often used materials in a more accessible location. Store seldom-used things elsewhere.

Think about your minimum needs—especially for things you use daily or weekly. Create threshold amounts for reordering, based on those needs. Either note those amounts on a spreadsheet, or in lab inventory software.


Clearly specify what materials are, and what experiments they are used for. Include information including expiration dates and type of reagent. Consider a barcode system. This can help with inventory management, as new and replacement materials can be scanned into the system when added or used. Create a map of reagent locations and post it in a central location.


Once you have a grasp of your existing stocking levels and future needs, reorder. Break this task down into bulk purchases, standing orders and individual orders. Ask vendors for custom sizes for the things you use most, if they are not already available in bulk. Standing orders are a great way to conserve storage space by getting high-demand items monthly or weekly, rather than having them crowd your shelf. And individual orders help you tailor your inventory to more specialized needs.


Now that you have a system in place, take time to teach your entire team how to use it. Stress the importance of keeping track of the supplies they use and how essential it is to return materials to their proper place. Give different members of your team their own responsibilities. Explain that following the procedures means they will have an easier time finding the supplies they need to run their experiments. Create an orientation system for new employees that include inventory management goals, tasks and strategies. Meet periodically to hold everyone accountable.


Keep your inventory records up to date. Check levels weekly or monthly, then assess your reorder levels as needed. Keep all receipts and invoices. Digitize them and save them within lab management software or in a dedicated file. Organize the hard copies in a safe place.

Besides monitoring stocking levels and expiration dates of chemicals and reagents, note every piece of machinery that requires service or calibration, make a schedule, and follow through.


Determine how often you need to perform a thorough recount. Use this time to find out how well your system works. Check the amounts of every item in stock, then compare it to the amount in your spreadsheet or inventory management software. Ask yourself about appropriate stocking levels and waste. Record all discrepancies. Make any ordering and training adjustments necessary to deal with these discrepancies.

Taking control of your laboratory inventory system though web-based tools will increase productivity, reduce costs, and save both time and money by making sure you have the tools you need to run the experiments you want to—rather than waiting for chemicals and reagents you should have had in stock.