3PL Vs. 4PL: Definition, Working, and Comparison
 Logistics

3PL Vs. 4PL: Definition, Working, and Comparison

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson
January 25, 2024
Last updated on:

January 25, 2024

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Read time: 6 mins

In supply chain management, third-party logistics (3PL) and fourth-party logistics (4PL) are integral components. A 3PL handles specific logistics functions for businesses, such as transportation and warehousing, while a 4PL operates at a higher level, overseeing and optimizing the entire supply chain.

The key distinction lies in their roles; a 3PL is a service provider, whereas a 4PL acts as a supply chain integrator, orchestrating various 3PLs for seamless operations. This blog will discuss the definitions, workings, and a comprehensive comparison of 3PL and 4PL, shedding light on how these strategies shape modern business operations.

As per DataHorizzon Research, the 4PL logistics sector valued at $63.9B in 2022, is projected to reach $129.4B by 2032, growing at 7.4% annually.

What is a 3PL?

A 3PL, or Third-Party Logistics, refers to a company that provides outsourced logistics and supply chain management services. Essentially, 3PL providers take care of various aspects of the logistics process on behalf of businesses, allowing them to focus on their core business functions. These services can include transportation, warehousing, distribution, order fulfillment, and other logistics-related activities.

According to IBIS World, the number of businesses in the Third-Party Logistics industry in the US has increased by an average of 1.3% annually over the five-year period from 2018 to 2023.

Third-party Logistics Definition

A third-party logistics (3PL) service provider specializes in outsourced logistics and supply chain management services. They manage and execute logistics functions such as transportation, warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment on behalf of their clients. 3PL providers implement advanced technologies and expertise to handle complex logistics challenges, allowing businesses to focus on core competencies while benefiting from scalable and flexible logistics solutions tailored to their specific needs.

Why Logistics Businesses Migrate From 3PL To 4PL
Image 1 - (4PL) fourth-party logistics provider (4PL) advantages

What is a Logistics BPO Support Partner?

Logistics BPO support partners are third-party service providers specializing in offering logistical business process outsourcing solutions. These partners efficiently manage tasks such as supply chain management, order processing, and inventory control, enabling businesses to simplify operations and focus on core business functions while improving overall efficiency in the logistics domain.

Read our blog,‘Key Factors to Consider while Choosing the Right Partner for Logistics Services,’to learn the ways to select the best logistics services partner for your business.

How Does 3PL Work?

The working of a 3PL involves several key functions and activities:

1. Transportation Management

  • Freight Forwarding: Coordinating the movement of goods through various transportation modes, such as trucking, rail, air, and ocean.
  • Route Optimization: Planning and optimizing transportation routes to ensure timely and cost-effective delivery.

2. Warehousing and Distribution

  • Storage: Providing warehouse facilities for storing inventory and managing stock levels.
  • Order Fulfillment: Picking, packing, and shipping business orders to end customers.

3. Inventory Management

  • Stock Control: Monitoring and managing inventory levels to prevent overstock or stockouts.
  • Order Tracking: Using technology to track the movement of products through the supply chain.

4. Technology Integration

Implementing and managing technology solutions, such as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and Transportation Management Systems (TMS), to enhance visibility and control.

5. Customs Brokerage and Compliance

Handling customs documentation and ensuring compliance with international trade regulations for cross-border shipments.

6. Value-Added Services

  • Kitting and Assembly: Combining individual products into packages or kits before shipping.
  • Labeling and Packaging: Providing customized packaging and labeling solutions based on client requirements.

7. Reverse Logistics

Managing the return of goods from customers, including product recalls and recycling efforts.

8. Communication and Reporting

Offering real-time visibility into the supply chain through regular reporting and communication, allowing clients to make informed decisions.

9. Risk Management

Identifying and mitigating supply chain risks, like disruptions, delays, or other unforeseen challenges.

10. Cost Optimization

Negotiating favorable rates with carriers and optimizing logistics processes to reduce overall supply chain costs.

11. Customer Service

Offering responsive and effective customer service to address any issues or concerns throughout the supply chain.

Understanding the 3PL service scopes for an ecommerce company

A fast-growing e-commerce company was facing challenges in managing the entire logistics chain, including storing inventory, processing orders, and delivering products. To streamline their operations and focus on sales and marketing, the e-commerce company decided to partner with a 3PL provider.

The 3PL provider took over responsibilities such as:

  1. Warehousing: The 3PL company operated warehouses where the e-commerce business stored its products. This allowed the e-commerce company to avoid the costs and complexities of maintaining its own warehouses.
  2. Order Fulfillment: When a customer placed an order, the 3PL provider managed the picking, packing, and shipping of the products. This ensured timely and efficient order processing.
  3. Inventory Management: The 3PL provider employed inventory management systems to keep track of stock levels, reducing the risk of stockouts or overstock situations.
  4. Technology Integration: They used advanced technologies, such as tracking systems and software, to provide real-time visibility into the supply chain, allowing both the e-commerce company and the 3PL to monitor and manage logistics operations effectively.

What is a 4PL?

A 4PL, or Fourth-Party Logistics, extends the concept of logistics outsourcing by adding an additional layer of management and coordination to the supply chain. In contrast to a 3PL, which typically focuses on specific logistics functions, a 4PL provider acts as an integrator, overseeing and managing the entire supply chain on behalf of the client. A 4PL essentially serves as a strategic partner, orchestrating various logistics services and ensuring seamless coordination between multiple 3PLs and other service providers. According to InsightAce Analytic, the global 4PL market size was valued at $55.75 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $104.54 billion by 2031, growing at a CAGR of 8.39%.

Who is a 4PL provider?

A Fourth-Party Logistics (4PL) service provider is a supply chain management specialist whose capabilities go beyond a conventional 3PL. Unlike 3PLs, which manage logistics functions, 4PLs integrate and manage the entire supply chain on behalf of their clients. They blend into an organization as a strategic partner, overseeing multiple 3PLs and other logistics providers to optimize the entire supply chain network.

4PLs provide comprehensive solutions including strategic planning, procurement, transportation management, inventory management, and logistics technology integration. They facilitate enhanced visibility, control, and efficiency, serving as a central point of contact to drive supply chain performance and achieve broader business objectives.

Here's an example to illustrate the concept of a 4PL:

Imagine a global electronics manufacturer that sources raw materials from multiple suppliers, utilizes various manufacturing facilities worldwide, and distributes finished products to a diverse customer base. The difficulty of managing such a supply chain with multiple moving parts and global operations can be overwhelming.

In this scenario, the electronics manufacturer decides to partner with a 4PL provider. The 4PL takes on the following roles and responsibilities:

  1. Strategic Planning and Design: The 4PL collaborates closely with the electronics manufacturer to design a supply chain strategy aligned with business goals. This involves optimizing transportation routes, warehouse locations, and distribution networks.
  2. Coordination of 3PLs: The 4PL acts as a central point of contact and coordination for various 3PLs handling specific logistics functions, such as transportation, warehousing, and distribution. It ensures that these 3PLs work in harmony to achieve seamless end-to-end supply chain operations.
  3. Technology Integration: Utilizing advanced technologies and information systems, the 4PL provides visibility and real-time tracking across the entire supply chain. This technology integration enhances transparency and allows for data-driven decision-making.
  4. Risk Management: The 4PL assesses and manages risks associated with the supply chain, implementing contingency plans to address potential disruptions. This includes monitoring geopolitical factors, weather events, and other variables that could impact the supply chain.
  5. Continuous Improvement: The 4PL engages in ongoing analysis of the supply chain performance, identifying opportunities for optimization, cost reduction, and process improvement. It adapts the supply chain strategy to changes in the business environment and market conditions.

A 4PL logistics example: A case study

Aramco, a prominent petrochemical company with a global footprint, needed help managing and monitoring its scattered supply chains. They realized effective 4PL solutions can be the key to consolidating the supply chain operations and effectively executing and monitoring complex operations. They sought to partner with a 4PL company that stressed proactive rather than reactive measures to prevent any supply chain management (SCM) downtime.

Maersk enhanced Aramco's supply chain visibility by deploying customized Supply Chain Intelligent Dashboards tailored to Aramco's specific needs and requirements, enabling comprehensive end-to-end monitoring through various tools and platforms. Maersk handled invoice reception and validation from various carriers, ensuring strict compliance with Aramco's shipping contracts, thereby reducing administrative costs and enhancing suppliers' payment efficiency.

With an advanced 4PL solution, Maersk delivered comprehensive supply chain visibility to Aramco, facilitating seamless coordination among stakeholders and suppliers through dedicated teams.

4PL Statistics
Image 2 - A snapshot of 4PL logistics statistics
3PL vs 4PL pros and cons
3PL Pros 3PL Cons
A cost-effective option for smaller or mid-tier business Minimum scopes of services
Enterprise get to retain complete control over their operations Entails management complexities with multiple providers
3PL solutions are agile and adaptable There’s no guarantee of strategic service guidance
4PL Pros 4PL Cons
Provides an extensive suite of SCM solutions Higher expenses upfront
Guarantees strategic guidance for SCM optimization Enterprises may have to let go of their control over supply chain operations partially
Creates cost saving opportunities The loss of control may trigger trust issues

How Does 4PL Work?

The working of a 4PL involves the following key features:

1. Supply Chain Integration

A 4PL is responsible for integrating and managing the entire supply chain network, including multiple 3PLs and other service providers. The focus is on creating a seamless and efficient end-to-end supply chain.

2. End-to-End Visibility

Providing real-time visibility and transparency over the entire supply chain, enabling clients to monitor and control the flow of goods from their origin to destination.

3. Strategic Planning

Developing and implementing strategic supply chain plans that line up with the overall business goals and objectives of the client. This includes long-term optimization strategies and continuous improvement initiatives.

4. Data Analytics and Technology Solutions

Leveraging advanced analytics and technology tools to collect, analyze, and interpret data for informed decision-making. This includes the utilization of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data-driven insights.

5. Risk Management and Resilience

Proactively identifying potential risks and disruptions in the supply chain and implementing robust risk management strategies. This involves creating contingency plans and ensuring business continuity in the face of unforeseen challenges.

6. Collaboration and Coordination

Facilitating collaboration and coordination among various stakeholders in the supply chain and logistics, such as suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. The 4PL acts as a central point of contact to streamline communication and optimize processes.

7. Performance Measurement and KPIs

Establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics to guage the performance of the entire supply chain. Regular performance reviews help detect areas for improvement and optimization.

8. Customization and Flexibility

Offering tailored solutions to meet the particular needs of clients. This includes adapting to changes in market conditions, regulations, and customer preferences.

9. Continuous Improvement

Implementing a culture of continuous improvement to enhance efficiency, reduce costs, and optimize processes over time. This involves regularly assessing and refining the supply chain strategy.

10. Global Reach

Managing global supply chains efficiently, considering international trade regulations, customs compliance, and the complexities associated with cross-border logistics.

Comparing 3PL Vs. 4PL

Here's a Comparison of 3PL vs. 4PL:

Aspect 3PL 4PL Example
Responsibility Manages logistics functions (warehousing, transportation) on behalf of the client. Integrates and manages the entire supply chain, including 3PLs, on behalf of the client. A retail company partners with a 3PL provider to manage its warehousing and distribution needs. The service provider handles inventory storage, order processing, and shipping logistics, ensuring timely delivery to customers while optimizing warehouse operations. Meanwhile, a 4PL service provider not only oversees various 3PLs managing transportation and warehousing but also integrates these services, optimizes supply chain processes, and provides strategic insights.
Scope of Service Limited to logistics and transportation services. Encompasses end-to-end supply chain management, including strategy and optimization. When a retail company outsources its warehousing and distribution operations to a 3PL provider, the latter is tasked to manage inventory, pick, pack, and ship orders, ensuring efficient logistics operations. Contrastingly, a fourth-party logistics provider not only manages multiple 3PLs handling transportation and warehousing but also integrates these services, optimizes supply chain processes, and provides strategic insights to improve overall supply chain performance and reduce costs.
Flexibility Generally offers flexibility but within the defined logistics functions. Provides greater flexibility and adaptability to changing business needs and market conditions. A retail company collaborates with a 3PL service provider to quickly scale up warehouse space, increase manpower for order fulfillment, and optimize transportation routes to meet increased customer demand during holiday seasons. A 4PL service provider takes the extra step by reconfiguring logistics routes and suppliers to minimize impact, ensuring operational flexibility during peak demand seasons.
Technology Integration May use technology for logistics operations. Leverages advanced technology for supply chain visibility, optimization, and collaboration. 3PL service providers implement a Warehouse Management System (WMS) to optimize inventory control, improve order accuracy, and streamline warehouse operations. The WMS allows real-time tracking of inventory levels, efficient picking and packing processes, and seamless integration with the client's ERP system. A 4PL provider integrates IoT sensors and predictive analytics for real-time shipment tracking, monitor environmental conditions during transportation, and predict maintenance. needs for fleet vehicles. The insights derived help optimize routes, reduce costs, and enhance overall supply chain efficiency
Decision-Making Tactical decision-making related to logistics and transportation. Strategic decision-making across the entire supply chain, including network design and optimization. A 3PL service provider makes decisions related to inventory placement, order fulfillment methods, and transportation routing based on operational efficiency and client requirements. However, strategic decisions like expanding into new markets or adopting new technologies are made by the client's senior management. Meanwhile, a 4PL service provider makes strategic decisions such as network optimization, supplier collaboration, and supply chain risk management. They may also recommend reconfiguring distribution centers based on market demand patterns or implementing predictive analytics to anticipate supply chain disruptions.
Client Involvement Clients may have more direct involvement in day-to-day logistics operations. Clients can focus on core competencies as the 4PL handles the entire supply chain, requiring less direct involvement. For a 3PL service provider, clients are involved in setting inventory targets, determining order fulfillment priorities, and approving transportation routes. They regularly review performance reports to address operational challenges and improve service quality. A 4PL service provider’s client participates in strategic meetings to align supply chain strategies with market trends and business growth initiatives, relying on the provider’s expertise for day-to-day management.

Conclusion

Both 3PL and 4PL are integral components of logistics, managing diverse tasks from inventory management to transportation. A few critical BPO tasks in streamlining logistics processes are customer service, order processing, and data management. Outsourcing these tasks assists 3PL service providers in focusing on core business operations and expanding fast.

Invensis is a leading supply chain and logistics services provider providing comprehensive outsourcing solutions to 3PL companies. Our outsourcing solutions include support in order processing, inventory management, procurement, transportation, and warehouse management. If you are looking for support to optimize supply chain solutions, get in touch with us now!

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is 3PL vs 4PL?

The core of the 3PL vs 4PL debate lies in their differences in roles within supply chain management. A 3PL focuses on executing specific logistics functions such as transportation, warehousing, and distribution. They provide operational efficiencies, scalability, and specialized expertise without the need for extensive infrastructure investment. While, a 4PL acts as a strategic partner, overseeing and optimizing the entire supply chain network. They integrate multiple 3PLs and other logistics providers, employ advanced technologies for real-time visibility and data-driven decision-making, and align supply chain strategies with broader business objectives. 

2. What's the Difference Between 3PL, a 4PL and a 5PL?

The distinction between 3PL, 4PL, and 5PL lies in their levels of involvement and scope within SCM. A 3PL provides specific logistics services like transportation and warehousing, focusing on operational execution and efficiency. In contrast, a 4PL acts as a supply chain integrator, managing multiple 3PLs and optimizing end-to-end logistics processes with strategic oversight and technology integration. A 5PL extends this model by incorporating additional services such as consulting, IT systems integration, and comprehensive supply chain management, often serving as a lead logistics partner coordinating various 3PLs and 4PLs to achieve seamless supply chain operations.

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