Setting up a seamless re-ordering system for a biology lab
August 9, 2019 2:26 PM   Subscribe

In the process of helping set up a new research lab at a university and wondering if any science MeFites have tips for setting up a system for inventorying and re-ordering reagents/consumables.

In the labs I've been in, we've had problems with people being too lazy/busy to order things when they open or take the last box. Writing on a white board seems to work okay, asking people to take off their gloves and input things on a Google Sheet definitely doesn't work, and we end up running out of things.

Some ideas the new lab has brainstormed for common consumables/reagents:
* tape paper QR codes on each new box of consumables/chemical bottle/kit. If someone uses an item or opens a kit, rip off its code and put the paper into a basket for re-ordering.
* QR code items and scan them with a barcode scanner as things are used, like in some startups. This seems way too cumbersome.
* use Alexa or Google Home to add things to an order sheet. This did not work well in a test.

Would love any ideas! Thanks so much!

Also any advice on how to start such a culture would be helpful. I don't really like the idea of making inventorying a lab job, because in those labs, it feels like other people don't feel responsible for lab upkeep anymore.
posted by katecholamine to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Whiteboard plus a spreadsheet with where you order various things / product codes is the way to go. Having the whiteboard list is a handy visual reminder to add things, and you can also add the date ordered and erase when received for tracking.

Most lab supplies have product codes on the box, you could also have a box to collect empty boxes or the torn-off cardboard pieces with the relevant information (because who's going to be printing and taping all those QR codes?).

Hopefully you are having lab meetings often enough that folks will pick up if two different projects will both need a lot of the same supply and you can order extra. Encouraging folks to check supplies a week or two before a large project is also a very good idea.

My university has a chemical inventory system that we are encouraged to use because it meets requirements for safety audits. Contact your EHS program to see if you do too! It makes it easy to see what's in stock and when it was reordered last.

If you have undergrads in the lab, this is where the systems tends to fall apart. There are a lot of rules to learn about how to behave in a lab. Consider making a guide for new students in the lab as you set everything up so you have a reference.
posted by momus_window at 2:55 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

Have you looked at Quartzy? It's something I had played around with using. If I were running the lab, I might enforce it.

But I like momus_window's comment about having a guide for new students. It might actually really help to have a written guide for *everybody* on what they're supposed to do. We have protocols for everything else; why not write up the SOP for how to handle lab inventory? Then if people aren't following the SOP, they need to explain why they're not following it, and it can be modified if needed. But having it written down might be the way to change the culture.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:04 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

But having it written down might be the way to change the culture.

Yup. In several independent/redundant binders, labeled with large, friendly lettering.

Have a few extra to send home and otherwise circulate, library style.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:10 PM on August 9

Seconding looking into Quartzy ( or taking a look at the several links to open-source software in this Nature article.

You could reinvent the spreadsheet, but they tend to be fragile.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:26 PM on August 9

Set up a kanban system.

For example, let's say you have a bin or tote full of an item people are pulling from for their work. It takes 1 week to order and supply that item. You wrap 8 days worth of the item in a bag or tape it together with the kanban card and put it in the back of the bin.

When the item runs out down to the kanban bundle, the person has to open the bundle and remove the card to get the stuff they want.

The card is basically a trigger to buy the item. You have a central bin for depositing the kanban cards that the purchaser or responsible party checks daily. The card has the item name on it, the ID or sku #, the kanban amount (8 days worth) and the amount to buy, maybe the supplier as well.

This works for anything from open pull items to items in inventory. Bundling the kanban amount with the card makes it dead simple to understand. When you open the kanban bundle, deposit the card to have more purchased. Easy to do so people don't resist or avoid.
posted by diode at 3:56 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Diode’s system is what we use at my lab. We have laminated cards with replacement levels marked on it.
posted by gryphonlover at 3:59 PM on August 9

My labmates and I write things on a white board that get ordered once a week. We alternate who does ordering, which has increased everyone’s personal investment in getting the white board right. But there are only 5 of us, and we’re pretty conscientious.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:09 PM on August 9

Thanks all, we really appreciated your suggestions and we will try to implement diode and gryphonlover's suggestions and also momus_window and SaltySalticid and Made of Star Stuff's suggestion to make SOPs :)!
posted by katecholamine at 8:35 PM on August 9

Keep a phone nearby, and "ok Google, text (PI) I am using the last filter paper"
posted by Dashy at 10:04 PM on August 9

I have been the manager of a small lab. You seem to have already decided, but here are my thoughts anyway:

A system that relies on everyone doing the correct thing at the time is too fragile. Eventually someone won't, for whatever reasonable reason, laziness, or simply mean to, then forget. You need a periodic reset-the-state-of-everything physical inventory and nothing will get you out of that. It doesn't have to be that often, though, once you get your quantities right.

Expiration is a hassle. Reagents with shelf-lives essentially get "used" but nobody's there to do the thing with the spreadsheet, kanban, or whatever.

We set a high-limit and a low-limit for each thing. When we got to the low limit, we ordered it up to the high limit. The low limit is enough to last through waiting for the new stuff. The high limit was kind of evolved over time to minimize wastage through expiration - you can't order a lot at once! or then everything expires at once. So order 2, wait a couple weeks, order 2 more is better than order 4 now in some cases.

Low-tech is better. Ours was a box of cards, one card for each expiration-date batch, and a "cover sheet" card that totalled up all the batch cards and had ordering info. That makes it easy to see when stuff expires and go remove the whole batch from the shelf, update the cover card, and throw away that card. Every single time someone came up with the seemingly reasonable idea to put all that in a spreadsheet or database of some sort, it didn't work. This was in the late 2000s, it seemed silly to do it on index cards, but introducing a computer always broke the system for behavior reasons I don't understand.

The kanban system is a nice add-on. Put a label card on every stack in the locker. Lab rule - if you get something out of the locker, throw it's card in the basket. No "do I still have enough" decisions to make - just throw the card in the basket. That's all I'm asking. The inventory person will collect the cards, check off one item on the inventory card, and decide if an order is necessary. This will still get screwed up sometimes. (but the physical inventory will catch it).
posted by ctmf at 12:52 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

Oh, re: making "inventory person" a job letting everyone else off the hook -
Make it a rotating job. By month or something. That (a) teaches everyone the importance and also difficulty of the task, one by one, and (b) introduces the golden rule concept. It's going to be your turn again soon, and the others are going to treat you the way you treated them.
posted by ctmf at 1:05 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]

I have run inventories for multiple labs and Quartzy is absolutely the way to go. They make it extremely easy to add and remove items from your lab inventory by catalog number and re-ordering is a breeze. You can set up locations and designate where items are. Locations can be as detailed as delegating the exact space in a freezer box. You don't have to only order from their shop, you can also place orders with the note that they'll be going through your university's procurement system. Provided people are actually removing things from the inventory as they use them (the weak link in any inventory system) it's a fantastic way of keep track of things. At minimum, it shows what you've ordered and exact catalog numbers to make it easy to look up and order the same items again.

SOPs for new lab members are crucial. Above all, people must (a) put things back where they found them and (b) remove things from the inventory once used up. One way to cope with (b) is to designate a space in the lab to put empty reagent bottles and then have one person periodically go into Quartzy and remove them. It is a more reliable method of ensuring things are actually removed from the inventory rather than relying on the user to do it in the middle or at the end of the experiment. I really like ctmf's idea of making inventory person a rotating job. It would really teach respect for the position.
posted by schroedinger at 4:41 PM on August 11

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