Don't be fooled just because June Lavelle makes her latest idea sound so, well, obvious. "It's just common sense," says the executive director of the Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago, a private nonprofit agency. Lavelle's sense is not all that common, however.

Back in 1980, Lavelle obtained a federal grant to refurbish a dilapidated industrial building, just two blocks from one of Chicago's worst housing projects. Then she invited start-ups to occupy the 348,000 square feet, luring them with flexible leases, low rents, shared office services, and management assistance. The Fulton-Carroll Center for Industry went on to become one of the first and most successful incubators, home to more than 100 start-ups in eight years. Only 11 of the companies have failed, and 25 companies have graduated from the center, which is now self-supporting. Meanwhile, the incubator has created almost 600 jobs.

Lavelle's latest big idea grew out of her first one. The incubator, she observed, houses nine furniture-makers, each with annual sales between $250,000 and $1.5 million. Wouldn't they be more competitive if they had access to state-of-the-art equipment? Her answer: a "machine park." It will be a kind of time-sharing factory, located in a fully equipped production facility where small companies can rent the time they need. She intends to raise about $2 million for the park, which she expects to open next year.

Her potential tenants are enthusiastic. "We'd only need the equipment 10 or 15 hours a month, and this would give us just that access," says Joe Agati, owner of Agati Furniture Inc., a year-and-a-half-old furniture company with about $700,000 in sales. "By not sending the parts outside, we could run them more economically and have more quality control.'

Lavelle expects the private sector to replicate the machine park idea, as it did the incubator concept. With the flexibility of modern machinery, she speculates that a similar system could be used in such areas as screw-making and even textiles. "It's very simple," says Lavelle, who is trained as an opera singer. "All we're doing is selling baloney by the slice, instead of the pound. But this could revolutionize the way we think about small manufacturers." -- Joshua Hyatt