What is third party logistics (3PL)?

3PL is an abbreviation for third-party logistics, a service that allows businesses to outsource operational logistics from warehousing, all the way through to delivery, and potentially even further. Companies that provide these services are called third-party logistics providers.

At its most fundamental level, a 3PL provider contributes to a portion or all of the supply chain management functions. These functions can involve inbound freight delivery, freight consolidation, warehousing, order fulfillment, distribution, outbound freight delivery, and customs brokerage.

The primary benefit of using a 3PL service is to free up a business's time and resources that would otherwise be spent on warehousing, packing, shipping, and tracking products. These can be significant, particularly for businesses experiencing growth, as increased sales volume can often lead to larger-scale logistics and supply chain management challenges.

Key takeaways

  • Definition: Third-party logistics (3PL) is a service for businesses to outsource logistics, saving time and resources.
  • How it works: 3PL providers manage parts of a company's supply chain operations, offering services from transportation to inventory forecasting.
  • Types: 3PLs vary based on their specialties, including transportation, warehousing, finance, forwarding, and management.
  • Pros and cons: Benefits of 3PLs include expertise, scalability, and cost savings, but drawbacks can be a loss of control, dependency, hidden costs, and communication issues.
  • Explore your options: Providers like Shipbob offer tailored 3PL solutions for trucking businesses, with reliable services and competitive rates.

How it works

3PL providers operate by taking over various segments of a company's supply chain operations. They offer a wide array of services, starting with transportation, where 3PLs coordinate with a network of carriers to transport products from the manufacturing site to warehouses, distribution centers, and sometimes directly to the consumer. They meticulously plan routes, schedule deliveries, and track shipments to ensure goods are transported effectively and promptly.   In addition to transportation, many 3PLs provide warehousing services, which are critical for businesses that don't have their own storage facilities or need to store goods closer to their customers for shorter delivery times. In these warehouses, 3PLs are responsible for the secure storage and retrieval of goods.Another crucial service is picking and packing, which forms a part of the order fulfillment process. When a customer places an order, 3PLs pick the correct items from the inventory, package them securely, and manage their dispatch.Some advanced 3PLs offer inventory forecasting services, utilizing historical data and complex algorithms to predict future demand. This aids their clients in maintaining optimal inventory levels and prevents stock outs or overstocks. For international shipments, 3PLs can take on the role of freight forwarders. They manage the shipping and storage of goods, navigate customs clearance, handle documentation, and solve other complexities associated with international logistics.   Technological support is another crucial aspect of how 3PLs work. Most 3PLs use sophisticated technologies such as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Transportation Management Systems (TMS), and data analytics tools. These technologies provide real-time visibility into operations, track inventory, optimize routes and resources, and generate data-driven insights for strategic decision-making.   Overall, a 3PL's functioning depends on the specific needs of the business it serves. They can manage a single aspect or a multitude of logistics operations, thereby allowing their clients to concentrate on their core business functions. The overarching goal of 3PLs is to enhance efficiency, decrease costs, and elevate customer service standards.

3PL types

Transportation-based 3PLs Transportation-based 3PLs primarily focus on the movement of goods from one place to another. This could be through various modes of transportation like trucking, shipping, rail, or air freight. These 3PL providers not only ensure that the goods are transported from origin to destination, but also handle tasks like cargo tracking, route optimization, and freight negotiation. Some may also offer added services such as customs brokerage and documentation support.   Warehouse/distribution-based 3PLs Warehouse-based 3PLs primarily offer warehousing and storage services. However, their services often extend beyond just storage, offering order fulfillment, packaging, labeling, and even inventory management. They typically operate large warehouse networks that can accommodate varying needs of different customers, whether it's cold storage, bulk storage, or racked storage. Their strategic locations often allow for efficient distribution, making them a good fit for businesses looking for a centralized storage and distribution solution.   Financial-based 3PLs Financial-based 3PLs mainly focus on cost and finance aspects of the supply chain. They offer services like freight payment and auditing, cost control, and financial analytics. They typically use sophisticated financial and accounting systems to provide these services. Some financial-based 3PLs might also offer inventory financing services, where they purchase the inventory on behalf of their client and then get paid back as the inventory is sold or used.   Forwarder-based 3PLs Forwarder-based 3PLs act as intermediaries between shippers and various transportation services. They can handle all kinds of freight, including ocean, air, and ground transportation. While they don't always own the transportation assets, they leverage their extensive network of carriers to arrange the best transportation modes and routes. They often handle international shipping logistics, including dealing with customs and other regulations. They can be further divided into freight forwarders and non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOCC).   Shipper/management-based 3PLs This type of 3PL provider offers a wide array of services, generally including those offered by transportation and warehouse-based 3PLs, but with an added level of management. They typically oversee the overall supply chain and may provide technology solutions for tracking and managing inventory, transport, and warehousing. They often offer customized solutions to their clients based on specific needs, including procurement, planning, forecasting, and customer service.

Pros and cons


  • Expertise and experience: 3PL providers are experts in logistics and supply chain management. They can handle complex logistics tasks, adhere to industry standards, and comply with regulations. This can improve operational efficiency and reduce the risk of errors or non-compliance.
  • Scalability: With a 3PL, a company can easily scale its logistics operations up or down based on demand. This is especially useful for businesses with seasonal demands or rapid growth. The 3PL can handle peak periods without the company needing to invest in additional resources or infrastructure.
  • Cost and time savings: 3PLs can often negotiate better freight rates due to their volume of business, saving companies money. They also use advanced technology and systems to streamline processes, leading to time savings. Outsourcing logistics also eliminates the need for businesses to invest heavily in their own warehousing, transportation, and staff.
  • Focus on core business: With logistics being handled by a 3PL, companies can focus on their core competencies such as product development, sales, and marketing. This allows them to put more resources and energy into growing their business.


  • Loss of control: When outsourcing logistics to a 3PL, companies inevitably give up some control over those operations. This can be a concern for businesses that want to maintain direct control over every aspect of their operation, from inventory management to customer service.
  • Dependency: Relying on a 3PL can create a dependency, which can be problematic if the provider runs into issues or fails to meet service level agreements. This risk can be mitigated by carefully selecting a reliable 3PL and having contingency plans in place.
  • Hidden costs: While 3PLs can often provide cost savings, there can be hidden costs or unexpected charges. These can include setup fees, charges for additional services not included in the initial contract, or increased rates over time. It's important for businesses to fully understand the pricing structure and contract terms before signing with a 3PL.
  • Communication issues: Communication can be a challenge when working with a 3PL, especially if they are located in a different time zone or if language barriers exist. Clear and effective communication is essential to coordinate operations and solve any issues that arise. This can be addressed by setting clear expectations and communication protocols from the outset.

Explore your options

Armed with an understanding of 3PLs and the benefits they can bring to your trucking business, you may now be considering the utilization of 3PL services. FreightWaves Ratings partners with reputable 3PL providers like Shipbob, a leader in the industry.  Shipbob offers tailored 3PL solutions specifically designed to meet the requirements of trucking businesses. By choosing to work with them, you can tap into their deep expertise, dependable services, and competitive rates to efficiently manage your logistics operations and propel the growth of your trucking company.
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