In the aerospace business, Special Devices is known as the company that supplied the initiator, or the trigger, for the Raytheon-built Patriot missile that became a big hit during the Persian Gulf War. Now the company, whose aerospace operations account for 58% of sales and all operating profits, wants to expand its other business: initiators for auto air bags.

Some investors believe the big switch will give Special Devices a badly needed new image--and better Street following. With much of the aerospace industry in a slump, Special Devices has lagged behind the market, at 9 3/4 a share, almost where it was when the company went public on Aug. 7, 1991.

Stan Trilling, a first vice-president at PaineWebber Inc. in Los Angeles, believes the stock is cheap. The company is currently the third-largest supplier of initiators to air-bag makers. The initiator is the trigger that makes a sensor explode the charge to inflate an air bag. Trilling notes that Special Devices' air- bag unit turned profitable this year and will help boost fiscal 1993 earnings to 45 a share, and to 75 next year, vs. fiscal 1992's 25 . Trilling sees the stock doubling in a year.

Analyst James Spencer at Wertheim Schroder figures that Special Devices' initiator sales will approach $50 million by 1996-97, as TRW, which makes air bags for General Motors, follows through on its contract to buy some 75% of its initiators from Special Devices. The company was also chosen by Atlantic Research to supply initiators for its air-bag inflators manufactured by Bendix Atlantic Inflator for certain Chrysler vehicles.

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