Logistics PL: Understanding Outsourcing Levels in the Supply Chain

Efficiently managing the supply chain is one of the main concerns for companies in today’s international trade and logistics landscape. With the evolution of supply chain practices and the emergence of new technologies, companies have the option to outsource part or the entire logistics process through what are known as logistics providers (PL).

Logistics providers, also known as party-logistics (PL), refer to the different levels of outsourcing in business logistics. From companies handling all stages of product delivery themselves (1PL) to outsourcing various stages to different providers (5PL), companies can choose the level most suitable for their needs and resources.

Let’s explore the different levels of party-logistics (PL) in international trade and their key characteristics.

1PL – First-Party Logistics

In the party-logistics category known as First-Party Logistics (1PL), companies have complete control and autonomy over all stages of the logistics chain. In this model, the company itself is responsible for carrying out all activities, from production or acquisition of goods to final delivery to consumers, using their own fleet of vehicles and resources.

Internal Control and Autonomy

Companies operating as 1PL providers have total control over their logistics operations. They possess their own resources, such as truck fleets, ships, or aircraft, and are responsible for managing and executing all logistics activities. This approach is suitable for organizations with sufficient structure and capital to handle all stages of the supply chain.

Examples of 1PL Companies

Amazon: Amazon is a notable example of a 1PL provider. The e-commerce giant not only manages its own supply chain but also has an extensive network of distribution centers and a fleet of partner delivery drivers and vehicles, such as vans and drones, to fulfill product deliveries to customers.


Walmart: Walmart is another company that falls under the 1PL provider category. As one of the world’s largest retail chains, Walmart has highly efficient in-house logistics, with its own distribution centers and a wide fleet of trucks for transporting goods between storage locations and stores.

Toyota: The Japanese automaker Toyota can also be considered an example of a 1PL provider. The company is responsible for managing the entire supply chain, from sourcing raw materials to distributing its vehicles to dealerships worldwide.

Advantages of 1PL

  • Total Control: The company has full control over all stages of the logistics chain, allowing for greater agility and adaptation to specific business needs.
  • Customization: The 1PL provider can customize and adjust logistics processes according to customer demands and priorities.
  • Confidentiality: By managing logistics internally, the company can keep confidential and strategic information private.
  • Investment Capability: Large companies with financial resources can invest in infrastructure and technology to optimize the logistics chain.

Challenges of 1PL

  • High Initial Costs: Establishing and maintaining in-house logistics requires significant investments in assets and resources, which can be a financial challenge for smaller companies.
  • Fluctuating Demand: Meeting demand can be challenging, especially during periods of high seasonal demand, where investing in additional resources may be necessary.
  • Maintenance and Updates: The company is responsible for continually maintaining and updating logistics and technological infrastructure, requiring additional resources.

2PL – Second-Party Logistics

In the second category of party-logistics (PL), known as Second-Party Logistics (2PL), providers specialize in transportation and, in some cases, storage of goods. Unlike 1PL, where the company handles all stages of the logistics chain, in 2PL, the company outsources only a specific part of the process.

Transportation Specialization

2PL providers are asset-based transportation companies, meaning they have their own fleet and are responsible for moving goods from one point to another. They ensure safe, efficient, and timely transportation of goods using modes such as maritime, air, or land transport, depending on the customer’s needs.

Involvement in Storage

In addition to transportation, some 2PL companies also offer storage services. In this case, they are responsible for maintaining inventory in their warehouses or distribution centers. This is especially useful for companies needing extra space for storing goods or aiming to optimize inventory management.

Examples of 2PL Companies

Maritime Companies: Maritime transport companies like Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), and CMA CGM Group are examples of 2PL providers operating cargo ships on maritime routes worldwide. These companies specialize in transporting large volumes of goods in containers.

Cargo Airlines: Airlines like FedEx, UPS, and DHL are examples of 2PL providers in air freight. They offer cargo transport and express deliveries on a global level, connecting different regions of the world in reduced time.

Land Transportation Companies: 2PL land transportation providers include trucking companies and road carriers moving goods nationally and internationally. Examples include DHL Freight, DB Schenker, and C.H. Robinson.

Logistics Operators with Transportation Services: Some companies offering logistics and transportation management services can be classified as 2PL providers. These operators can use their own fleet or partnerships with carriers to provide customized transportation solutions.

Advantages of 2PL

  • Specialization: 2PL providers are transportation and storage experts, ensuring these critical logistics stages are efficiently executed.
  • Flexibility: Outsourcing transportation and storage allows companies to focus on their core competencies while entrusting logistics to specialists.
  • Cost Savings: Using 2PL services can be more cost-effective than maintaining a fleet and storage infrastructure.
  • Wide Coverage: These providers have extensive geographic coverage and access to various transport modes to address diverse logistics needs.

3PL – Third-Party Logistics

In the category of party-logistics known as Third-Party Logistics (3PL), providers offer more complex and comprehensive logistics solutions. In this model, the contracting company retains control and management of the supply chain, while the 3PL provider acts as a strategic partner, seeking ways to optimize efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance end-to-end logistics.

Characteristics of 3PL

  • Integrated Solutions: 3PL providers offer a comprehensive range of logistics services, including transportation, storage, inventory management, packaging, labeling, distribution, and even customs services. They act as a single partner to meet the logistical needs of the contracting company.
  • Expertise: 3PL providers are logistics experts with deep knowledge of the market, industry technologies, and best practices. They use their expertise to design customized and efficient logistics solutions for each client.
  • Cost Reduction: Through process optimization, load consolidation, smart routing, and negotiations with carriers, 3PL providers seek to reduce the contracting company’s logistics costs, making their operations more competitive.
  • Flexibility and Scalability: 3PL providers offer flexibility to adapt to seasonal demand fluctuations, allowing the contracting company to expand or reduce logistics capacity as needed.
  • Advanced Technology: 3PL providers use transportation management systems (TMS), warehouse management systems (WMS), and other advanced technologies to track, monitor, and optimize logistics operations.

Examples of 3PL Companies

  • DHL Supply Chain: DHL is one of the world’s largest logistics companies, providing a wide range of 3PL services including transportation, storage, inventory management, and reverse logistics. The company serves clients in various sectors such as retail, automotive, technology, healthcare, and more.
  • UPS Supply Chain Solutions: UPS is another global logistics giant offering 3PL services to companies worldwide. Their services include cargo transportation, storage and distribution, freight management, reverse logistics, and supply chain solutions for various sectors.
  • Kuehne + Nagel: Kuehne + Nagel is a global logistics company providing a wide range of 3PL services including air, sea, and road freight, contract logistics, and integrated supply chain solutions for industries such as aerospace, automotive, pharmaceuticals, and more.

Advantages of 3PL

  • Expertise: 3PL providers bring specialized logistics knowledge and industry best practices to optimize supply chain operations.
  • Resource Savings: Companies can save time and resources by outsourcing logistics to experts, allowing them to focus on core business activities.
  • Cost Efficiency: 3PL providers leverage their expertise and scale to negotiate better rates with carriers and reduce overall logistics costs.
  • Scalability: 3PL services can be scaled up or down to meet changing business needs, offering flexibility in logistics management.
  • Technology: 3PL providers employ advanced technologies for real-time tracking, inventory management, and overall logistics optimization.

Challenges of 3PL

  • Loss of Control: Contracting companies may face challenges related to relinquishing some control over logistics operations.
  • Communication Complexity: Effective communication and coordination between the contracting company and the 3PL provider are crucial for successful logistics management.
  • Dependency: Companies become dependent on the 3PL provider’s capabilities and performance, making the choice of provider critical.
  • Quality Assurance: Ensuring consistent quality across all aspects of logistics, from transportation to storage, can be a challenge when outsourcing.

4PL – Fourth-Party Logistics

Fourth-Party Logistics (4PL) providers are more strategic in nature compared to 3PL providers. In the 4PL model, a single company acts as an integrator, coordinating the entire supply chain on behalf of the client. This includes overseeing multiple 3PL providers and ensuring seamless collaboration between them.

Key Characteristics of 4PL

  • Strategic Coordination: 4PL providers design and manage end-to-end supply chain solutions, coordinating multiple 3PL providers and other stakeholders.
  • Centralized Control: The client outsources complete control of their supply chain to the 4PL provider, relying on their expertise to optimize operations.
  • Data-Driven Insights: 4PL providers use advanced data analytics to identify inefficiencies and areas for improvement across the supply chain.
  • Process Integration: These providers focus on seamless integration of processes and technologies among various 3PL providers for maximum efficiency.
  • Customized Solutions: 4PL providers tailor supply chain strategies to the unique needs and goals of each client.

Examples of 4PL Providers

  • Accenture: Accenture is a global consulting and professional services firm that offers 4PL services, helping clients optimize their supply chains through data-driven insights, technology integration, and strategic coordination.
  • CEVA Logistics: CEVA is a supply chain management company that provides 4PL services to design, implement, and manage complex supply chain solutions for various industries.
  • XPO Logistics: XPO offers 4PL services to orchestrate and optimize supply chain operations for clients across multiple sectors, including e-commerce, healthcare, and automotive.

Advantages of 4PL

  • Strategic Optimization: 4PL providers offer holistic supply chain optimization by coordinating multiple 3PL providers and streamlining processes.
  • Focus on Core Competencies: Companies can concentrate on their core business functions while leaving the intricacies of supply chain management to experts.
  • Efficiency Gains: Data-driven insights and process integration lead to improved efficiency and reduced operational costs.
  • Scalability: 4PL services can be adapted and scaled to accommodate changing business needs and market conditions.

Challenges of 4PL

  • Complexity: Managing multiple 3PL providers and ensuring their collaboration requires advanced coordination and communication.
  • Dependence: Companies entrust their entire supply chain to the 4PL provider, making the selection of the right partner critical.
  • Data Security: Sharing sensitive supply chain data with the 4PL provider requires robust data security measures.
  • Cost: The comprehensive nature of 4PL services can lead to higher costs compared to other outsourcing levels.

5PL – Fifth-Party Logistics

Fifth-Party Logistics (5PL) is an advanced category of party logistics that focuses on strategic operation by applying technology to optimize operations and reduce costs across all stages of the supply chain. In this model, 5PL providers play a crucial role throughout the logistics chain, from production to final consumer delivery, including transportation, inventory management, and integration of advanced IT systems.

Key Characteristics of 5PL

  • Strategic Optimization: 5PL providers act as strategic partners, planning and executing highly optimized solutions for the supply chain. They analyze data, identify areas for improvement, and implement innovations to enhance efficiency and quality across all logistics processes.
  • Advanced Technology: Technology is a fundamental pillar for 5PL providers. They utilize advanced IT and computer systems to ensure real-time visibility and control of the entire supply chain, regardless of the number of involved suppliers.
  • Complete Integration: 5PL providers work to seamlessly integrate all components of the logistics chain, from suppliers to end customers. This enables more effective collaboration, informed decision-making, and quick response to market demand changes.
  • Cost Reduction: With their strategic approach and use of advanced technology, 5PL providers seek to identify cost reduction opportunities throughout the supply chain, ensuring that logistics operations are conducted more economically.

Examples of 5PL Providers

  • UPS Supply Chain Solutions: UPS is one of the world’s largest logistics and transportation companies. Through its supply chain solutions division, UPS offers 5PL services, providing highly integrated and technologically advanced solutions to optimize its clients’ supply chains.
  • DHL Supply Chain: DHL is another global logistics leader offering 5PL services. They collaborate with clients from various sectors to design tailor-made supply chain solutions, using advanced technology to achieve greater operational efficiency.
  • Kuehne + Nagel: Kuehne + Nagel is a Swiss logistics and transportation company that offers 5PL solutions to clients worldwide. They focus on providing a comprehensive and integrated view of the supply chain, helping their clients achieve superior outcomes.
  • IBM Supply Chain Solutions: IBM, known for its advanced technological solutions, also offers 5PL services for supply chain management. They use artificial intelligence and data analysis to optimize their clients’ logistics.

Advantages of 5PL

  • Optimization and Efficiency: With a strategic approach and the use of advanced technology, 5PL providers ensure complete and efficient optimization of the supply chain, delivering a higher level of operational efficiency.
  • Real-Time Visibility: Integration of advanced IT systems allows real-time visibility of the entire supply chain, enabling clients to monitor and control their operations more accurately.
  • Greater Flexibility: Through their strategic approach and complete integration, 5PL providers offer greater flexibility to adapt to changes in market demand and customer needs.

Challenges of 5PL

  • Technology Investment: Successful implementation of a 5PL solution requires a significant investment in advanced technology and integrated IT systems.
  • Collaboration with Different Stakeholders: 5PL providers must collaborate with various stakeholders, including suppliers, clients, and other logistics partners, which can pose challenges in terms of communication and coordination.

6PL – Sixth-Party Logistics (AI Driven Supply Chain)

Sixth-Party Logistics (6PL) is the most advanced level of party logistics that utilizes cutting-edge technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to monitor and drive the supply chain. In this model, 6PL providers offer fully integrated and partially automated solutions, providing AI-driven management to optimize their clients’ logistics.

Characteristics of 6PL

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): The main characteristic of 6PL is the use of Artificial Intelligence to analyze large volumes of data in real-time. AI is capable of learning from data and identifying patterns, trends, and valuable insights to enhance supply chain efficiency.
  • Machine Learning: Machine learning is another key technology used by 6PL providers. It allows systems to self-adjust and improve based on past experiences and changes in market conditions.
  • Continuous Monitoring: 6PL providers continuously monitor the supply chain and logistical operations in real-time. This enables a rapid response to unforeseen events and the ability to make more informed decisions.
  • Process Automation: With the use of automation technologies, 6PL providers can automate various logistical tasks such as goods tracking, demand forecasting, inventory management, and more.

Examples of 6PL Companies

  • Elementum: Elementum is a company that offers AI-driven supply chain solutions for businesses in various sectors. Their system uses machine learning to predict risks and opportunities, allowing their clients to proactively optimize their logistical operations.
  • IBM Watson Supply Chain: IBM, known for its advanced technology solutions, offers IBM Watson Supply Chain, which utilizes the Watson AI platform to provide real-time insights into the supply chain, improving visibility and efficiency.
  • Blue Yonder: Blue Yonder specializes in AI and machine learning-based supply chain solutions. They offer a planning and execution platform that enables advanced prediction and automation of logistical operations.

Advantages of 6PL

  • Advanced Optimization: AI and machine learning technology allow for advanced supply chain optimization, identifying improvement opportunities and making more accurate and effective decisions.
  • Real-Time Visibility: With continuous real-time monitoring, 6PL providers offer complete visibility of the entire supply chain, enabling more informed decision-making.
  • Quick Response to Changes: Automation and AI enable a rapid response to market demand changes and unforeseen events, ensuring greater agility and flexibility in logistical operations.

Challenges of 6PL

  • Technology Implementation and Integration: Implementing advanced AI and machine learning technologies requires a significant investment and efficient integration with the company’s existing systems.
  • Team Empowerment: To fully leverage the benefits of 6PL, a capable team is required to understand and effectively utilize these advanced technologies.


The choice of the most suitable party-logistics level for a company will depend on its needs, resources, and the degree of specialization required at different stages of the supply chain. Outsourcing of logistical services can bring various advantages, such as cost reduction, increased efficiency, and access to advanced technologies. Therefore, it is essential for companies to carefully analyze their logistical demands and objectives before making a decision about the type of PL logistics that best suits their business.

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