Lab management: Inventory importance

I often ask labs a seemingly simple question: “Do you have an inventory?” About half of them respond with a hesitant “Ahh, no.” To be clear, by “an inventory,” I only mean a list of items in the lab and where they’re located. This can be in the form of a document, spreadsheetreally any collection of searchable data. When I hear a “no,” it’s usually followed by one of these explanations:

  • “We don’t have a lab manager.”
  • “We only submit an inventory list once a year.”
  • “Our department/receiving tracks it for us.”

While this is perfectly acceptable if that process—or lack thereof—works for them, I can’t help thinking that these labs are missing out compared to labs that answer “Yes.” 

leslie
Leslie Williams

Does every lab really need an inventory, though? I think so. Each lab’s inventory will certainly differ depending on what information they value, but having a searchable list of everything the lab uses generally has more pros than cons. The biggest, most prevalent—and perhaps even the root—con is that an inventory takes time to create and update. True. But there are far more pros that make an inventory invaluable:

  • You’re following regulations/standards, so you don’t have to scramble to make lists before inspections.
  • Searching through historical data is easy. You don’t have to check your email, visit vendor websites, or email someone who graduated to identify the obscure chemical name ­­that used to be on a shelf.
  • Lab members can accurately report exactly what is running low.
  • No more Googling or struggling to remember those pesky catalog numbers.
  • No more wasting time telling new people where everything is.
  • You can track lab spending.
  • Everyone can plan their experiments ahead of time.
  • Adding new items helps notify lab members that their order arrived.

Labs that find inventories most useful are those that answer the initial question with, “Yes, doesn’t everyone?” Inventories are integral parts of their day-to-day workflows. They can’t imagine working without them—even if their inventory systems could use upgrades. Labs with optimized inventory systems reference them online before requesting or searching for new supplies, keep track of ideal vendors for each item, and proactively order before someone uses the last of the pipette tips. Most importantly, this information isn’t lost if someone leaves the lab, thus taking all institutional inventory knowledge with them.

But back to the lone con: time. I’ve seen and helped labs overcome this concern. The key is to start only logging new items, and put the current inventory on the backburner. Then, going forward, add items to your inventory every time they’re ordered or refilled. This will build up over time, and the final inventory will feel less daunting to finally tackle. The approach anxiety common to inventory creation is quickly quelled once labs see how painless the process truly is—and realize how much time it will save them in the long run. So, when are you starting your inventory?


Quartzy is the world’s No. 1 lab management platform. We help scientists easily organize orders, manage inventory, and save money. We’re free and always will be. Visit Quartzy.com or reach out at info@quartzy.com.

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Leslie Williams

Leslie studied neuroscience and conducted research at UCLA. She now works with labs to streamline workflows and save money.