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3PL vs. 4PL Logistics – Explanation and Comparison


While businesses want to optimize their supply chain operations for efficiency and cost-effectiveness, navigating the 3PL vs 4PL decision can be challenging for many businesses. What is 3PL and 4PL? What exactly do these terms mean? And how do you determine which option best suits your needs? It’s understandable to thoroughly examine this choice – making the wrong call could prove quite costly. 

In brief, 3PLs directly manage transportation and logistics, while 4PLs oversee and coordinate multiple 3PLs engaged by a company. Whether a 3PL or 4PL fits best will depend on each business’s distinct circumstances and requirements. This article will give you extensive knowledge and compare 3PLs and 4PLs to help you in decision-making. We define and explore both models in depth, analyzing their respective advantages. The necessary insights will equip you to make the right logistics partner choice for your business’s priorities and supply chain. 

4PL VS 3PL: Understanding the Difference

Third-party logistics (3PL) and fourth-party logistics (4PL) providers offer important services to help companies manage their supply chain operations. But what is difference between 3PL and 4PL? What are their pros and cons? This guide provides a complete overview comparing 3PLs and 4PLs.

What Do 3PL Companies Do?

Third-party logistics (3PL) providers specialize in handling logistical operations on behalf of client companies. While clients maintain oversight and responsibility, 3PL service executes key transportation of raw materials and finished products, managing warehousing infrastructure and inventory levels, shipping arrangements, freight forwarding, and fulfillment functions such as order processing and packaging that clients choose to outsource.

The range of outsourced fulfillment services varies depending on clients’ needs and 3PLs’ capabilities. Many 3PL fulfillment companies own or directly control physical assets like vehicles, warehouses, and inventory that enable them to provide services. Partnerships with 3PLs allow businesses to leverage logistics expertise and outsource to support their internal operations for maximum efficiency. This logistic workflow can boost supply chain performance significantly and allow businesses to focus on their primary functions.

What is a 4PL Logistics Company?

What does 4PL mean? Fourth-party logistics (4PL) goes beyond simply executing logistics functions and involves managing the entire supply chain and logistics process at a strategic level. 4PLs oversee and coordinate the efforts of multiple 3PLs that a company is using, ensuring optimal efficiency, cost savings, and service levels across the logistics network. They provide oversight, technology solutions, and expertise to optimize the supply chain. Companies lacking staff dedicated to transportation and fulfillment functions are prime candidates for 4PL partnerships.

A 4PL provider coordinates intricate logistics workflow end-to-end. Many unfamiliar factors can influence supply and demand that can cause confusion. From sourcing raw goods to delivering finished products to users. a 4PL transfers your business’s logistics operations, and associated oversight, to specialized outside experts. For companies feeling ill-equipped to optimize their own transportation, distribution, and fulfillment processes, a 4PL partnership may prove optimal. Overlooking and coordinating 3PLs is also their responsibility. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of 3PL and 4PL

The choice between 3PL fulfillment and 4PL logistics depends on the business model, its capacity and operations but it is important to have an understanding of possible advantages and disadvantages they bring.

  • Advantages and Disadvantages of 3PL

Key benefits of using a 3PL include reducing operational costs by leveraging their assets and expertise, improving scalability to meet changing demand and focusing internal resources on core competencies instead of logistics management. It makes faster deliveries possible which results in increased customer satisfaction. They streamline operations by outsourcing which is cost-effective and provides guidance on logistics. The adaptive nature of the 3PL model maintains an optimal level of the supply chain. 

3PL also comes with certain drawbacks. That can include reduced oversight and control, lack of flexibility, and higher risk when relying heavily on a single provider. 3PL mistakes can cause customer mistrust and can affect the business relationship.

  • Advantages and Disadvantages of 4PL

The main advantages of a 4PL include better coordination and optimization of logistics networks thanks to their comprehensive oversight role across multiple 3PLs and transportation modes. This leads to reduced costs, faster delivery times, and streamlined systems and processes. They promise improved logistics capabilities without capacity investments. They do not directly own physical logistics assets the way a 3PL does. Relying on a 4PL also adds management costs for their coordination services. They provide the ability to adapt quickly to changes and can manage multi-party logistics networks. 

The disadvantages of hiring a 4PL provider are higher upfront costs and potential complexities in coordinating multiple 3PL partners. Businesses have to surrender control over decisions regarding logistics. Switching to 4PL is often costly especially if the orders are low.

How Does 4PL Differ From 3PL?

The main distinction between 3PL and 4PL providers lies in the level of management. With a 3PL, you outsource fulfillment operations but manage them directly. With a 4PL, you rely on their oversight and coordination. Here are the main areas where 3PL and 4PL models differ:

  • Focus: 3PLs manage distribution activities like warehousing, order processing, and shipping. 4PLs take a wider view, controlling the whole supply chain including transportation and technology in addition to fulfillment with 3PL partners.
  • Relationship: Engagements with 3PLs often center on transactions and lane pricing. 4PL ties are more strategic and advisory, as they identify and address bottlenecks and aim for an efficient network.
  • Assets: 3PL owns hard assets such as warehouses, trucks, and infrastructure to operate logistics functions. 4PL assets are non-physical; their value lies in software, systems integration, and supply chain expertise to coordinate networks.
  • Cost Reduction: 3PL scale and infrastructure reduce costs. 4PLs drive savings by streamlining supply chain processes, partnerships in warehouses and applying reverse logistics methodology. 
  • Customer Communications: 4PLs are middlemen, filtering all communications between their 3PL partners and clients. This can sometimes cause delays in resolving issues. With 3PL providers, clients manage their accounts directly for faster response.

How Do 3PL And 4PL Work Together?

Many shippers leverage partnerships between 4PLs and 3PLs to capitalize on the unique value each provides. The 4PL serves as the lead logistics coordinator while 3PLs are responsible for specific distribution operations. This integrated model allows companies to access 3PL infrastructure while gaining 4PL oversight.

In these relationships, the 4PL takes on the responsibility of aligning and optimizing processes across the 3PL partners in the shipper’s network. They focus on broad visibility into the end-to-end workflow. The 3PLs handle on-the-ground warehousing, transport, fulfillment, and other logistics activities – using their assets and resources. The 4PL logistics brings their best practices and provides technological integration between 3PL systems for smoother data flow. This allows shippers to focus on core business objectives rather than logistics integration challenges. Efficient logistics management depends on the strategic choice between 3PL/4PL solutions, each offering distinct advantages in maintaining the supply chain.

Costs of Using a 3PL and 4PL

The decision between 3PL and 4PL partners involves comparing the costs of their services. However, expenses should not be the only factor – the provider’s ability to meet your supply chain requirements is also important. Still, the financial implications require consideration. 

Generally, 3PL services prove more budget-friendly for most businesses. Exact pricing varies by provider and specific offerings. While 3PLs charge transactional fees and/or monthly fees depending on services used and infrastructure provided, 4PLs typically charge a management fee calculated as a percentage of the total supply chain spending overseen. 4PL logistics providers bring added value to business so from a pure cost perspective, 3PL services are more affordable, especially if your business operations don’t require 4PL-level management internally. The price difference means 3PL solutions tend to be the cost-efficient choice for many companies.

3PL and 4PL Software  

Modern software enables both 4PLs and 3PLs to provide visibility, optimization, and analytical capabilities far greater than companies can develop on their own. These tools track orders, inventory, shipments, and metrics in real-time across end-to-end supply chain networks. Many 4PLs and lead 3PL partners offer control panel dashboards that provide unified views of data, metrics, and analytics from disparate 3PL systems. Including software solutions that amplify the capabilities of both 3PL and 4PL providers and assure error-free logistics.

3PL And 4PL Examples

All these service provider models are not just in theory. Follow are the real-life examples of 3PL and 4PL logistics examples:


E-commerce leaders have set new standards which lead to higher customer delivery expectations. Retailers now face pressure to offer next or even same-day shipping while preserving margins. Both 3PLs and 4PLs provide pathways to meet these heightened demands cost-effectively. 3PLs handle rapid delivery infrastructure and enable small to mid-sized businesses to affordably offer direct-to-consumer shipping. Meanwhile, 4PLs assume full supply chain authority, optimizing every link for speed and fluidity. Today’s customer demands the shortest possible wait time, so outsourcing logistics has become essential. Both 3Pl and 4PL can handle real-time expectations resulting in happier customers.


Medical devices must be shipped quickly from manufacturers to healthcare providers around the world. It needs alert tracking against theft, making it challenging. 3PLs offer specialty transportation capabilities for this complex yet urgent delivery. 4PL oversight adds further value to coordinating multi-partner networks under tight deadlines. Their supply chain expertise provides needed visibility and risk mitigation. 


Safe food transportation needs specialized supply chains to protect perishawble items.3PLs provide cold storage warehousing and transportation. 4PLs further enhance food supply chain logistics via optimized network-wide efficiency, close monitoring, and anticipating disruptions. So when outsourcing food transportation logistics, look for providers that are capable of handling it. Determine whether a specialized 3PL or more expansive 4PL approach best fits distribution needs.


Industrial companies have diverse distribution needs based on their specialties, so the ideal logistics partner depends on your unique operations. Businesses lacking the ability to control transportation functions may benefit from 4PLs fully managing complex supply chain networks. Their integrated oversight provides end-to-end visibility and coordination. Companies maintaining hands-on logistics could maximize flexibility and customization by working directly with specialized 3PL providers. The provider type should align with internal capabilities and necessary visibility into important metrics across your supply chain.

3PL vs. 4PL – What’s Best for Your Company?

In today’s complex, global supply chains, both 3PL and 4PL services provide valuable opportunities to improve operations. Deciding between 3PL or 4PL partnerships depends on internal resource constraints, network complexity, technology needs and desired cost controls. 

Key factors play into the decision:

  1. Existing logistics execution abilities and gaps better filled by outsourced tactical 3PL services or strategic 4PL oversight.
  2. Current supply chain visibility requirements and potential gains from 4PL data integration.
  3. Software connectivity with partners, aided by 4PL integrations.
  4. Cost analysis – 3PL asset utilization vs. 4PL supply chain coordination

Leading providers offer blended 3PL/4PL solutions covering both execution and optimization. For most complex supply chains, a hybrid leveraging both capabilities provides ideal “control tower” management. Carefully analyze your internal logistics capabilities and pain points, then determine if outsourcing execution to 3PL specialists or adding 4PL oversight and coordination better addresses your needs. This assessment shapes an optimal logistics strategy fitting your operations.

Need Help With Logistics?

Expanding companies need to devote more resources to developing products, sourcing materials, and marketing. Outsourcing repetitive order processing and logistics through a 3PL allows better scaling. 3PLs handle critical fulfillment tasks like warehousing, inventory control, packing orders, and coordinating shipping so you can focus elsewhere. Meanwhile, for major corporations, supply chain coordination is more complex. A 4PL that assumes full authority over logistics management brings specialized expertise that’s hard to match internally. Many fast-growing e-commerce firms retain 3PL partners supported by adaptable technology platforms.

Choose the model that best aligns with your business’s size, growth phase and sophistication needs. These comparative advantages will be your guide so you can determine what balance fits best. Payless Prep Center brings you the solutions to manage your logistics expectations while letting you be in control. Contact our logistics experts today for a consultation on the optimal solutions for your unique operations.

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