WILMINGTON, DEL. -- The company that brought you "better living through chemistry" now wants to do it electronically.

Du Pont Co., facing stagnation in some of its traditional chemicals and materials businesses, is looking to electronics products to give the company a powerful engine for growth.

Du Pont's interest in electronics is nothing new -- the company has supplied the industry with chemicals, materials and other products for years. But over the past year, the company has gone on a binge of acquisitions and joint ventures and gathered together its various electronics interests into a single division with an estimated $1.6 billion in revenue this year.

"Everybody thinks of it as a chemical company, but it's really a technology company," said John Henry, a financial analyst who follows Du Pont for E.F. Hutton. "Technology companies should go where the growth is, and that's where Du Pont has gone."

Du Pont hopes that synergy from its background in chemicals, ceramics and other materials will give it a technology and marketing edge in the electronics industry, so that it can avoid the experience of other large industrial companies that have diversified into fast-growing electronics markets only to find that technology is not enough -- or that the Japanese have gotten there first.

The company has picked its spots carefully, concentrating on areas in which it already has a strong position, in which it believes it has a safe competitive niche, or in which it can arrange a joint venture with another company that adds technological or marketing know-how and can share the risk. It has shied away from low-profit commodity businesses like semiconductor chips and has instead gotten into such specialized fields as electronics packaging, chemicals used to etch circuit boards, connectors, optical discs for audio, video and data storage, and materials used in making integrated circuits.

"We have not been in the semiconductor business, and we really don't intend to get into the semiconductor chip business," said C.L. Henry, group vice president of Du Pont's electronics department.

"We don't have any desire to get into the computer business and compete with IBM and DEC, or to get into the telecommunications industry and compete with AT&T and the seven Bell companies," said Edgar S. Woolard Jr., Du Pont's president. "Our strategy is to take our strong chemical base, with the beachhead that we've established in basic electronic materials, and look for opportunities to integrate them in a way so we can get more into components and subassemblies for all the major markets."

In addition to technological know-how, experts say, Du Pont brings sheer size to many of these businesses that up until now have been the domain of former companies. Combined with the company's favorable reputation with makers of electronics products, that could make the company a formidable power in the electronics industry very quickly.

"There's a belief in the industry out there that Du Pont can do just about anything, and that helps us get through the door," said Ed Smith, director of product planning for BT&D Technologies Inc., a Du Pont joint venture with British Telecom that is developing switches and connectors for the fiber-optics market.

Du Pont executives believe they can expand their electronics business to as much as $3 billion by the early 1990s, making it a significant part of the company's revenue stream. Electronics already accounts for more than 5 percent of Du Pont's annual sales, which were $27.1 billion last year.

"Our basic businesses that we've been very successful in for three or four decades, which are primarily based on hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, started seeing slower growth. We still consider them to be very good business, with some growth and diversification opportunity, but not the growth we had in the '50s and '60s and '70s," Woolard said in explaining the decision to focus on electronics.

"The entire electronics industry has become one of the major industries in the world, when you consider computers, telecommunications, consumer electronics and all the military applications," Woolard said. "We've been very pleased with Du Pont's growth in that business over the last 15 years. It's been our fastest-growing business."

Du Pont's interests in electronics over the years have been diverse. Its Mylar plastic film, for instance, long has been used as a basis for capacitors and printed flexible circuit boards; its chemicals and ceramic materials have been used by the silicon chip-making industry for years; and its Riston brand photo-resist film -- used to make electronic circuit boards -- is a industry leader.

But those businesses also have been far-flung in an organizational sense -- scattered all over the company, often with little coordination.

That changed last year. As the result of an internal study, Du Pont pulled together its electronics operations into a single department, which was announced in October. "In our company, that's significant," said Henry, who in his previous role as vice president for corporate planning helped draw up the strategy for consolidation of the company's electronics businesses. "Electronics always, up until that point, had been just a division within another department, so when the department was formed it was a clear signal of the total importance of electronics to Du Pont, and management intent and support for that business."

Included in the department were such operations as Mylar; Riston; Berg Electronics, a maker of electronic connectors acquired by Du Pont back in 1972; the company's thick-film paste business, which makes precious-metal pastes used in manufacturing semiconductors, and its video and audio tape materials and supplies units.

To that conglomeration, Du Pont has added several acquired businesses in the past few months, including Tau Laboratories Inc., a manufacturer of photomasks used in the making of integrated circuits; ETD Technology Inc., a maker of specialty chemicals and processes for electroplating printed circuit boards; Elite Circuits Inc., which makes plastic connection devices, and Bourns Inc.'s ceramics semiconductor packaging business.

Du Pont also has entered into two potentially significant joint ventures in the electronics field. It has joined with Dutch electronics giant N.V. Philips to form Philips and Du Pont Optical Co., bringing together the two companies' know-how in the making of optical discs used in everything from popular compact-disc players to computer memory systems. PDO already has 40 percent of the world's compact disc market, and is expected to grow to a $1 billion company within five years.

The other joint venture is the one with British Telecom to develop components used to handle fiber optic transmissions. Although BT&D is still in its formative stages -- it is just now bringing products to market -- Du Pont hopes the venture will give the partners a large hunk of a potentially huge market for fiber optic switching and connection equipment.

Taken together, this seeming hodge-podge of electronics business gives Du Pont significant positions in several fast-moving electronics areas, and the company hopes the potential interplay between them will allow it to sell its electronics products as broad-based solutions and as subassemblies -- rather than as simple raw materials or components.

In part, Du Pont's product line stops just short of the semiconductor business, and company officials say they want it that way. They would rather sell the chemicals and materials used to make and package integrated circuit chips. At the same time, however, the company hopes to "forward integrate" its electronics business -- to assemble various kinds of chips, connectors and other technologies into packages that consumer, industrial and military-electronics that product makers can purchase rather than making themselves.

"Forward integration, I think, is the name of the game in some of these areas," said Daniel Rose, president of Rose Associates, a Los Altos, Calif., electronics industry consulting firm.

"We're trying to become more than just a materials supplier to the world," said Don Rogers, director of electronics research and development at Du Pont. "We are working very hard to build the value on the materials base and to forward integrate."

"A lot of people are in the electronics business, and a lot of people supply just basic materials to the electronics business," Woolard said. "We don't think people try to take these materials with an engineering skill and a research skill and design a system that will work for a major computer or a major telecommunications {system} or a major military electronics system." To market its electronics products, Du Pont merged another set of operations -- its disparate electronics business sales forces. In the past, each product had its own sales representatives, stifling coordination and confusing customers.

"We had a number of people calling on each customer," Henry said. "One of the worst things I ever heard was that two of our sales reps met each other for the first time in a customer's waiting room. I don't want that to happen again."

An efficient sales staff is important in many of the businesses Du Pont has chosen, because for the most part they involve custom work that requires close relations with customers. It also requires great attention to research and development work -- long Du Pont's forte.

"R&D in the department has to stay very close to the marketplace," Rogers said. "What we attempt to do is work closely enough with them at a high enough level so we can understand how they're trying to position their technology and they can understand how Du Pont can help them."

Du Pont spent $135 million on electronics R&D last year and plans to keep the spending high, even at the expense of profits for the time being. "I don't believe Du Pont has been stinting on its investment in these areas," said David Francis, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., a market-research firm in San Jose, Calif. "I don't think money is a problem."

Henry concurs. "I don't ever worry about getting money," he said. "I worry about making that money pay off, but I don't worry about getting it." However, he adds, "If we're going to spend $135 million on research, we've got to see some productivity and some payoff, or we're going to go out there and buy something -- or put it in the bank."

One development area to which Du Pont is devoting a great deal of attention is superconductors, the high-speed electronics breakthrough that is fascinating many a corporate lab. Du Pont feels that its materials and electronics know-how should give it an advantage in superconductor research.

Needless to say, a big win in semiconductors would carry the electronics department for a long time. But without that, Du Pont has to deal with stiff competition in many of the electronics markets it has entered -- most of it from abroad. "The areas that they're involved with, of course, all have competition, but generally speaking, the competition for Du Pont in electronics, in electronics materials ... is really going to come from Japan," Rose said. "It's the big Japanese companies that are in all segments of Du Pont's electronics business that will be a threat."

In the area of ceramic semiconductor packaging, for instance, Du Pont runs up against competition from Kyocera, the Japanese company that dominates that market and has dispatched most previous opposition. And in doing battle in the electronics field, Du Pont is sure to come upon the carcasses of other big American industrial companies -- such as General Electric Co. and Gould Inc. -- that thought they could compete with the Japanese in electronics technologies and failed.

"People who are stagnating or people who are locked into an area are always looking for new areas -- the greener pastures syndrome," Francis said. "It's very difficult for companies to compete in this environment."

Du Pont, however, believes it brings the right technological, management, sales and financial skills to bear on the electronics market to make it a competitive player.

"A lot of people are, quote, jumping into the electronics business, but we've been in it a long time now," Woolard said. "During the course of that 15 or 20 years' history, we've been able to ascertain where we add value, and where we've added value is where our capabilities in research and with a very strong materials base have enabled us to design and put together packages of materials and components that will enable a major customer to get the benefit of our engineering skills and our materials skills."

"We're not asleep here -- we know there's going to be intense competition and survival of the fittest," Henry said.

And Henry, a Civil War buff, goes back into Du Pont family history for a cautionary tale of inspiration: "The Du Ponts were prominent in that war, and one was an admiral in the Navy. And he was explaining to Admiral Farragut why he didn't take his boats into Charleston, and he went through a lot of reasons why he didn't do it, and Farragut was progressively getting teed off at these explanations of why Du Pont didn't come in. And he finally said, 'Let's cut this out. There's really only one reason you didn't do it... . You didn't believe you could.'

"The contrast I make to that is, in electronics, we believe we can," Henry said. "Until we become totally convinced otherwise, we'll keep doing it."