A 2023 Comparison of 3PL and 4PL Supply Chain Solutions

October 11, 2023

Third-party logistics or 3PL services involve outsourcing various elements of supply chain management to a specialized provider. This can be anything from warehousing and inventory management to transportation, logistics planning, packaging, and distribution. 3PLs own or lease warehousing and distribution facilities to store finished products for manufacturing clients. They provide logistics functions like receiving, order fulfillment, shipping, and inventory management.

Outsourcing non-core logistics activities enables companies to focus on production while 3PL experts deal with distribution. 3PLs also consolidate deliveries from multiple clients to achieve economies of scale difficult for any one company. That said, where do fourth-party logistics (4PL) providers factor into this equation?

What are 4PL Services?

Fourth-party logistics (4PL) providers operate one level above traditional 3PLs. Where 3PLs handle logistics execution, 4PLs integrate and manage multi-modal transportation services from 3PLs to move items between different points in the supply chain. This can include using semi-trailers to transport payloads from a warehouse to a rail yard, where they are then shipped by train to another city; exporting cargo by boat internationally and then transferring it to an articulated vehicle for final delivery; or transporting air freight to an airport and then loading it onto lorries for the last leg of the journey.

Another notable difference is that 4PLs don’t own assets or directly handle inventory. What this means is that they do not purchase or lease warehouses, trucks, shipping containers, etc., to store and transport consignments themselves. Further, 4PLs neither take direct possession of client companies nor receive, store, pick/pack, or ship inventory. They leave the handling of customer merchandize to multi-user 3PL partners they engage.

Their value is in the strategic planning, optimization, and oversight of supply chain activities, not in conducting operations themselves. 4PLs analyze clients’ logistics needs, design customized supply chain solutions, as well as select and oversee appropriate 3PLs. They then liaise with reputable warehouse service providers that have the resources needed for effective inventory management.

Pros and Cons of 3PL and 4PL Services

Logistics issues can hurt a manufacturing company’s operations, reputation, and bottom line. Delayed/incomplete shipments can disrupt production schedules and lead to factory downtime. Inconsistent delivery of raw materials may force manufacturers to halt assembly lines until supplies arrive.

Damaged or lost goods during transport can result in costly defects or penalties for late orders.

Without reliable logistics, manufacturers struggle to deliver finished products to customers on time, thus impacting customer satisfaction and future sales. Both 3PL and 4PL services provide value by allowing manufacturers to focus on core competencies; but, they also have some potential drawbacks to consider.

Pros of 3PL Services:

  • Expertise in logistics execution allows companies to leverage specialized skills
  • Variable costs eliminate the risk and upfront investment of owning assets
  • Access to economies of scale and capacity that one company cannot achieve alone
  • Increased flexibility and ability to adapt logistics to changing business needs


  • Loss of direct control over inventory and supply chain operations
  • Potentially higher costs if volumes are too low to maximize 3PL contracts
  • Reliance on 3PL for performance without ownership of distribution channels

Pros of 4PL Services:

  • Access to best-in-class 3PL providers vetted for each logistics need
  • Strategic consulting provides optimized, integrated supply chain design
  • Performance management and analytics for continuous improvement


  • Higher management fees than standalone 3PL services
  • Less control over day-to-day operations handled by underlying 3PLs

Manufacturing companies must weigh all their supply chain needs to determine whether a 3PL execution or comprehensive 4PL management would be a better strategic fit. Contact R & S Logistics today. We offer numerous 3PL services, such as warehousing and fulfillment, transportation management, and value-added services. Our solutions provide flexibility and scalability to help manufacturers of all sizes manage inventory and distribution.

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Our shipping and warehousing experts are happy to answer your questions. Get in touch to learn more about our fully customized solutions.

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