A warehouse worker prepares orders for shipment
By Deanna Self | January 31, 2024

Navigating the Crossroads of In-House vs. 3PL in Distribution

There are tradeoffs when you fully manage distribution operations in-house versus outsourcing to a 3PL. There are also tradeoffs when handing over control to a 3PL. This is how to turn them all into opportunities vs. risks.

As a former Director of Operations, I've navigated the multifaceted world of distribution center (DC) operations, experiencing both the collaboration with a third-party logistics provider (3PL) and the challenges of establishing a company-owned DC. This journey has not only been about making strategic decisions but also about understanding and adapting to the evolving trends in the manufacturing, transportation and logistics (MT&L) industry. Here are my key learnings:

The 3PL Voyage

My venture with a 3PL partner was an educational odyssey, and I learned a lot through collaboration with them. The initial phase of aligning our vision with the 3PL's approach highlighted the importance of transparent communication and strategic alignment. As we started operating as one team, our effectiveness in exceeding service level agreements (SLAs) grew exponentially.

However, the journey wasn’t without its hurdles. Adapting to changing market demands meant our 3PlL partner had to not only be efficient but also adaptable and forward-thinking. This phase taught me the value of a partnership that goes beyond service provision and ventures into strategic collaboration, sparking innovation and growth.

Anchoring In-House

We made a strategic decision in 2022 to start managing some U.S.-based DC operations in-house. That transition was a leap into a realm of new challenges since we had to assess, refine and, in some cases, redesign  every aspect of our operation. This included systems, processes and even the physical layout. Since we no longer had a 3PL partner for support, we immediately focused on building a robust team capable of adapting to the unique demands of the U.S. market. We also began to integrate innovative technological solutions that could create new efficiencies and produce actionable insights. This phase wasn't solely about managing logistics; it also involved establishing a team culture centered around continuous learning and adaptability.

The in-house DC management model certainly offered greater control and flexibility in some areas. But it also showed the advantages we previously had with a 3PL in terms of innovation and workforce flexibility. This realization underscored the importance of strategic planning in balancing the benefits of internal control with the agility of external partnerships.

Comparative Insights: How to Bridge the Two Worlds, No Matter Which World You Live In

Reflecting on both experiences, I find it essential to share key takeaways with you:

  1. SLA Management: Effective management of SLAs is paramount, regardless of the operational model.
  2. Operational Control vs. Flexibility: In-house operations offer more control but demand greater resource commitment, whereas a 3PL can provide flexibility, especially in dynamic market conditions.
  3. Technology and Innovation: The role of technology in optimizing operations is crucial in both scenarios, with different approaches to integration and utilization.

If you’re on the 3PL side of things, understanding your customers’ preferences for control and customization is key. This knowledge could influence their decision to bring operations in-house versus working with you.

Conversely, if your company is considering in-house logistics management, you must strategically plan for innovation and scalability challenges typically handled by 3PLs.

No matter which side you’re on, know that both 3PL and in-house logistics management models require a balance of cost, control, and flexibility, with a keen eye on market trends and technological advancements.

The landscape of DC management is in constant flux, influenced by global trends, technological advancements, and market dynamics. Whether opting for in-house management or collaborating with a 3PL, your success hinges on agility, strategic foresight, and continuous adaptation.

In sharing my experiences with both models, I aim to guide and inspire MT&L professionals like yourself who may be grappling with this crucial decision. I hope my insights will help you navigate the complexities of modern logistics with confidence. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss the specific challenges and successes I’ve experienced while working with 3PLs and leading an in-house DC operations team.

Topics
Blog, Article, New Ways of Working, Digitizing Workflows, Warehouse and Distribution, Retail,
Deanna Self
Deanna Self


Deanna Self serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for Global Supply Chain and Repair at Zebra Technologies, where she is tasked with shaping and driving digital initiatives to optimize the global supply chain and repair processes. Bringing over 25 years of experience in sales, operations, and IT to her role, Deanna is passionate about leveraging technology to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction. Her expertise and forward-thinking approach are integral to her leadership in transforming Zebra's supply chain digital landscape. 

Prior to this role, Deanna was responsible for the oversight and management of Zebra’s largest order fulfillment distribution center. She also spent over two decades in the food and beverage industry before joining Zebra, where she started out owning and operating her own distributorship and eventually served as an IT executive for Nestle USA.  

Deanna holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Queen’s University of Charlotte and was named one of Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Pros to Know. She is also a winner of the Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Women of Supply Chain award.