In February 2017, General Motors engineering department bosses called a hush-hush meeting with select engineers.
One of the design engineers at the meeting was Alex Archer, then 24 and two years out of college. She had no idea what the meeting was about or that it would springboard her career.
"They told us to please come up with this invention because we want to incorporate it in our next big SUVs," said Archer.
The invention was a power-sliding center console. It's the first storage console to be motorized. It can form different configurations, has a hidden compartment, extra storage and can convert to an armrest.
At the meeting, the bosses tagged Archer, a newbie, to give it life in under 36 months.
"Everyone knew that the way to break through something new at GM, you have to break the process," said Archer, a rookie who found creative ways to get it done.
"They know I'm learning," said Archer. "They needed someone willing to ask a lot of questions because this was something we'd never done before, no one had done it before, so there was no one to benchmark."
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The power-sliding console is futuristic and innovative, often inspiring a "wow" reaction in sample groups when Archer sets it in motion, she said.
By pressing a button above the rearview mirror, the power-sliding console will:
"The biggest thing is how much storage it will give," said Archer. "It gives an additional 10 inches of storage space between the passenger and driver seat, which doesn't sound like a lot until you see it."
The power-slide console will be in available on these large SUVs that go on sale this summer.
GM has not announced pricing for those vehicles or the cost of the package with the power-sliding console.
But the fact that the console has made it to production is incredibly fulfilling for Archer.
"It feels good," said Archer. "It's what I wanted to be when I was little - an inventor."
Birth of an inventor
By all accounts Archer, 26, should not be working at a car company in Detroit.
She grew up in southern California amid a family of problem solvers where there was always a jigsaw puzzle in progress on the family's dining room table, she said.
Archer entered college with the desire to be a doctor, but then she took a design-thinking course during her freshman year. In the class, Archer and her team had two weeks to invent a machine using only Styrofoam blocks, poster board, rubber bands and a hot-glue gun.
"It was so creative," said Archer. "That was the big push for going into engineering. It's having an idea and bringing it to life."
The other push was her 83-year-old grandfather, a car buff, her best buddy and her mentor.
In her sophomore year, the two of them rebuilt the engine on a 1937 MG together. That's when Grandpa suggested, "You know, you could be an engineer for a car company."
Ford vs. GM
There was just one glitch. Grandpa was a Ford Motor Co. fan, she said.
"I did interview there," said Archer, who graduated from Stanford University in 2015 with a degree in engineering and product design, "But I looked at Mary Barra's background, and I liked her vision for GM."
CEO Barra has said GM envisions a future with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. GM is developing electric vehicles and self-driving cars in ride-sharing platforms to move toward that future.
Archer also related to Barra as a female. Archer said she's often the only woman in a room of 30 or more male engineers and therefore, "I appreciated that Mary Barra was a woman in a business that is predominately male."
In 2014, when Barra was named CEO, Archer was a junior in college. She sought out articles on her.
She followed how Barra steered the company through one of the deadliest recalls in U.S. history: GM's ignition switch crisis, which left 124 people dead after faulty ignition switches shut off the engine while the vehicle was in motion, preventing air bags from inflating.
Now, Archer said, Barra wants to change the industry with autonomous vehicles, electric cars "and she's hiring young people. ... It all really resonated with me. When it came to picking my job, it came down to Ford and GM and it ultimately came down to the CEO."
The power-sliding console concept was derived by four people in a GM 2020 co:lab, GM said.
A co:lab is GM's think tank where employees propose ideas. The 2019 GMC Sierra's MultiPro tailgate, which converts into a step, a seat and even a standing workstation, was born in a similar type of think tank.
Although Archer's name is on the patent for creating how the new console moves, she worked with a team of a dozen designers and nearly 10 suppliers.
"It took a ton of people, I'm just somebody who stuck with it the whole time," said Archer. "There were electrical folks that helped us, designers, tooling, engineers and beyond that because you have to make sure you're hitting all your milestones."
The team kept the project top secret at GM's Technical Center in Warren. They spoke of it using code names, she said. Archer took pains to cover and hide the various prototypes in closets.
By the end of 2017, Archer, fellow design engineer John Sabol and the team had a working prototype. They made two more prototypes after that and by the summer of 2018, GM leaders green-lighted it for production.
Grandpa finally knows
The hardest part of the experience, said Archer, was keeping the power-sliding console secret from her family.
"I was so excited to show my parents what I was working on," said Archer. "My grandpa was very proud. He loved hearing the difficulties I had and how I overcame them."
Grandpa is "still my mentor today," she said. He gives her advice on how to work through problems methodically and take challenges a day at a time, she said.
The two even still restore cars together - well, sort of. She bought an old 1955 Packard Clipper in 2016 that she's restoring in her Michigan garage as her grandpa simultaneously is restoring a Maserati where he lives in California.
"We talk weekly about the Packard and anything else going on in the world," said Archer.
If Grandpa is her mentor, Barra is her role model.
Barra was once the plant manager at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly and now Archer is eyeing a future in a GM factory.
"I really like product management, so maybe I'd like to do something in a plant to resolve problems there," said Archer. "I hear plant experience is really important. Mary Barra did it ."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GM engineer's secret project for newest SUVs finally unveiled