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As companies search for comprehensive logistics solutions, they often encounter two distinct terms: third-party logistics (3PL) and fourth-party logistics (4PL). While these terms may sound similar, their underlying approaches and services differ significantly. In this article, we will dive into the levels of logistics and focus on the key contrasts between 3PLs and 4PLs. By understanding the unique benefits and functionalities of each, you'll be equipped to make informed decisions when selecting the most suitable logistics partner for your business.

The Five Levels of Logistics Providers

While most companies work with 3PLs and 4PLs, there are actually five distinct levels of logistics providers. Each offers unique services and solutions to help businesses succeed, but only the first four are typically used in today's market. Before we compare 3PLs and 4PLs, here is a brief overview of the five levels of logistics providers.

First-Party Logistics (1PL)

A 1PL provider manufactures and transports specific goods. With this model, all transportation is taken care of internally, so there's no need for any external points of contact. A 1PL will have their own fleet of trucks or other delivery vehicles.

Second-Party Logistics (2PL)

A 2PL focuses only on the transport of goods, and most of today's parcel carriers — like UPS — are considered 2PLs. They do not, however, manufacture or assemble the goods being shipped. 2PLs typically own their own transportation vehicles, such as trucks, ships, or planes.

Third-Party Logistics (3PL)

A 3PL offers outsourced logistics support through a variety of shipping, warehousing and specialty solutions. They can either have their own fleet of shipping vehicles, or they may work with an external carrier network.

Fourth-Party Logistics (4PL)

A 4PL, sometimes referred to as a lead logistics provider, is similar to a 3PL in many ways. The key difference is that a 4PL will often oversee the entirety of a more complex supply chain. They may even outsource to multiple 3PLs for various processes.

Fifth-Party Logistics (5PL)

A 5PL also acts to manage whole supply chains through multiple outsourced service providers. They act as a more in-depth 4PL and are an up-and-coming phenomenon in the e-commerce arena. 5PLs are relatively new, meaning they are not as commonly used as 3PLs or 4PLs.

The Role of 3PL Companies in Freight Shipping

Typically, a 3PL will work with small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) to manage their supply chain and day-to-day operations. They often monitor supply chain performance, which helps them identify key efficiencies and potential roadblocks that need to be fixed.

3PL services aren't just for SMBs, however, as larger companies can also benefit from a 3PL company managing portions of their supply chain. Large companies and corporations often make use of several 3PLs that are contracted by a larger 4PL.

3PL service options vary by provider, but most include:

  • Logistics management — involving the planning, coordinating and overseeing the storage and movement of commodities
  • Warehousing and inventory management solutions — involving the storage of goods and the efficiency of day-to-day operations
  • Order fulfillment — involving the picking, packing, labeling and shipping of commodities
  • Transportation management — involving the physical movement of products, either by the 3PL's fleet or an external carrier

The Role of 4PL Companies in Freight Shipping

4PLs often work with larger companies and corporations to manage their more complex supply chain operations. A 4PL will typically manage the entire supply chain, often contracting out to smaller 3PLs to manage various portions or processes.

4PLs do not own assets or employ any operation workers — their focus is on coordinating the supply chain network. They also provide consultative services to businesses, helping them to streamline and maximize their operations.

4PL services are often high-level and include:

  • Designing, analyzing and optimizing the entire supply chain for improved efficiency and cost—effectiveness
  • Providing strategic guidance and consultative services to maximize productivity
  • Researching and developing strategies for warehouse and inventory management solutions
  • Coordinating additional 3PL providers and any external companies hired to provide additional work
  • Streamlining the supply chain process and reducing associated costs
  • Organizing and overseeing the supply chain's management
  • Analyzing and providing an action plan to lower transportation expenses and maximize carrier performance

3PL vs 4PL: Comparing Key Differences

3PL Companies 4PL Companies
Functionality Handles the day-to-day logistics operations Designs, builds and provides end-to-end management of the overall supply chain process.
Point of Contact Single point of contact, unless also working with 4PL. Single point of contact for all parties involved.
Services Offered Services include inventory management, warehouse management, transportation operations and distribution networks. Services include consultative solutions and strategic guidance for each part of the supply chain.
Assets Some 3PLs own and operate warehouses and carrier fleets. Others are non-asset based and work alongside warehouses and have a trusted carrier network. 4PLs are non-asset based, meaning they do not own their own shipping vehicles.

Grow Your Business with Top 3PL Service from GlobalTranz

3PLs and 4PLs each offer unique benefits for businesses looking to improve their logistics, so it's important to find the solution that's right for your specific needs. Whether partnering with a 3PL or a 4PL, you need a logistics partner who offers not only top-tier solutions but also first-class support and expertise.

At GlobalTranz, we pride ourselves on providing a full suite of tools and resources, a variety of shipping solutions and best-in-class support from our team of dedicated logistics experts. By working with our network of 85,000+ full truckload (FTL) and 75+ less-than-truckload (LTL) freight carriers across the nation, you're sure to find a solution to fit your company's needs and budget. Connect with an expert today to see how GlobalTranz can help transform your freight shipping and logistics.