Japan's best-known consumer electronics company is trying to make a name for itself by selling computer work stations to U.S. scientists and engineers.

Two weeks ago, Sony, the company that brought the world the Walkman and the videocassette recorder, unveiled two new computers, priced at $3,995 and $19,900. The company, which in November established a subsidiary in Palo Alto, Calif., to market the machines, hopes to crack America's lucrative but intensely competitive work station market.

"My belief is that this is our last chance" to succeed in computers, said Masahiro Morimoto, president of the Palo Alto subsidiary, Sony Microsystems Co.

A veteran of various U.S. computer companies, Morimoto is well aware that Sony has failed in three previous attempts to win a following among American computer buyers.

But he thinks Sony finally has found the right formula: It will offer lower-priced clones of hot-selling computers made by Sun Microsystems Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

For the past year, Sony has been successfully selling machines in Japan that use the same microprocessor and similar software as a Sun computer.

Sony thinks it is ready to bring those computers to the United States, which accounts for most of the $2.1 billion market for technical work stations. "Unless you're a significant success in your home market, you can't take your product overseas," Morimoto said. "That was the mistake in the past. Now we have succeeded at home."

In April, the first shipments of Sony's computers will leave a former television factory in San Diego. The Palo Alto subsidiary won't use its parent company's extensive U.S. sales force to peddle the machines, planning instead to sign up about 100 dealers by year's end.

However, selling work stations in the United States will be much harder for Sony than selling VCRs and stereos has been. American companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto and Apollo Computer Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass., have a lock on the technical computer market, and Sun is the current leader by a wide margin. Analysts don't expect that to change overnight.

"I don't see the {Sony computers} as being even remotely a serious threat to Sun," said Bob Herwick, a New York-based analyst with Hambrecht & Quist, an investment banking firm.

Morimoto has set modest goals for Sony. He said sales of just 2,000 work stations in 1988 will satisfy him, but added, "Within three years, we have to become successful."

Indeed, the stakes are high for Sony. Japanese firms have done well selling mainframes and, after a series of flops, lately have gained ground in personal computers. "But they've missed the middle of the computer market," said Andrew Rappaport, president of Technology Group, a Boston consulting firm. "They have nothing."

Japanese firms want to change that, and Sony is probably just the first of several Asian firms that will enter the work station market over the next year.

The Japanese have targeted work stations because they constitute the fastest-growing portion of the computer industry, far outpacing the larger personal computer market. Work station sales are expected to rise 33 percent this year, slightly better than the estimated 31 percent increase in 1987, according to Dataquest Inc., a San Jose, Calif., market research firm.

Work stations also are attractive because emerging software standards are blurring the differences between competing machines. Customers welcome the standardization because it makes machines easier to use and increases the amount of available software.

However, some critics worry that the adoption of such standards will permit the Japanese to use their superior manufacturing techniques to gain an edge against American competitors. In recent speeches, for instance, Jean Louis Gassee, Apple Computer Inc.'s senior vice president for research and development, has lectured on the perils of standardization in work stations, warning that the Japanese will "eat our sushi" if the trend continues unabated.

But other industry observers say technical advances in work stations made by American firms are appearing so rapidly that Sony will find it nearly impossible to ride the industry's coattails.

"The risk of a Sun-clone strategy is that work-station makers, particularly Sun, have kept on introducing more powerful computers," said Dataquest analyst Hal Feeney.

Last week, for instance, Sun introduced its fastest desk-top work station yet at a price below Sony's high-end machine. Faster models from other U.S. competitors are expected in the coming months.

"It's premature to say that work stations have become commodities," said Rappaport at Technology Group. "We're still a few years away."