Debbie Knight

Supply and demand

In observation on March 2, 2012 at 11:59 am

This tweet came up on my Twitter feed this morning.

Yes, I can tell you from my own personal experience that it is highly frustrating when you are all set to do an experiment only to find that a key reagent needed to do that experiment has run out. Even worse is if the experiment is already running and you need that reagent today (although that might be poor planning on the researcher’s part).

But there are many links in the chain when it comes to getting supplies to the lab — at least in an academic setting.

Sometimes it’s a bad lab citizen who is at fault. An irresponsible labmate who has been using the reagent routinely for his experiments uses the last of the reagent without letting anyone know that more needs to be ordered. I think this is the worst scenario. This short-sighted labmate is putting his research needs above the rest of the labs. And it might even bite him in the buttocks should it run out before he’s done. (Bad labmate, bad!)

I’ve learned to compensate for these labmates and keep my eye on supply levels, especially ones I know are being used extensively.

Sometimes it’s the person who is responsible for ordering lab supplies who has dropped the ball. I’ve done this — usually when a small Post-It note is easily camouflaged by the sea of Post-It notes on my desk of avalanching papers. This situation usually forces a mass excavation of my desk — and I’m often surprised to find that the papers are actually supported by (gasp!) an actual desk top. For the ordering person, it is the worst  feeling knowing you are responsible for slowing research progress.

And it gets more complicated if you’re ordering supplies  for a group of labs. I did this in my former research position. It was an intense, nerve-wracking experience. I eventually found my stride and got pretty good at keeping the supply train moving smoothly. But in the beginning, it was a major source of stress to be responsible for  those research labs when I had been used to ordering for an individual lab.

But I digress.

Another way the ball can be dropped is by not following up on an order that’s placed — especially when the reagent is needed in a timely manner. Again, I’ve been guilty of this — usually when other lab responsibilities have crowded in and overwhelmed my short-term memory circuits.

At my university, ordering involves a “paper” trail which, at any given point along this trail, progress can be stalled. Back in the day, it was literally a paper trail, filling out forms, faxing them to the purchasing department, and waiting. It was tough to track an order back in those days  — you had to wait until purchasing had assigned a purchase order number. Nowadays, everything is submitted electronically. Easier to track with less chance for something to get lost. But on occasion, even this system can have a glitch. Usually it’s in the step when the purchasing department sends the order to the supply company or the researcher miscalculated how much money is in the coffers.

Sometimes the item is back ordered — meaning the company doesn’t have it in stock but expects it to be restocked “soon.” This is especially bad if the company is the sole supplier of the item and you have no other vendor options. This is the second worst situation, especially if it’s a long wait before the restock. Although rare, I have had to wait up to three or four  months for an item to come in. That certainly can bring a research project to a screeching halt.

Sometimes there’s a clerical error and the item is shipped but to the wrong address. This usually happens when the company has specific customer numbers they assign to an order and they have a difficult time matching one to the specific lab address. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened in my two decades of ordering lab supplies. If I had one wish to change scientific supply company practices (besides pricing), I think this would be it. I understand they may need these to track their business transactions, but perhaps a little more flexibility is needed.

So, I hope that you can appreciate how many different ways the supply flow can be perturbed. And this is not an exhaustive list.

Is the tweeter totally blameless in her frustration? I’d have to say not entirely. I think it’s a mistake to assume a highly used reagent will always be kept in stock in a busy lab. If you’re planning to do an experiment, you should check to make sure you will have all the reagents you  need before you start the experiment. There’s some wisdom in the saying, look before you leap. But there’s another saying …

Prediction is difficult, especially about the future…”  — Yogi Berra


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  1. Two-Bin System. In this system, you have a main bin and a backup bin of products. You normally use the main bin, but once you run out and need to reorder, you use the backup bin to fill orders until the new products are received.

    Pros: You’ve always got spare products for emergencies and sudden rises in demand.

    Cons: The products in the backup bin could spoil or become obsolete unless they are cycled into the main bin every now and then. Also, you need to keep an eye on your carrying costs.

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