Thousands of shiny copper-plated coins shoot from machines into wooden boxes, the clinking sound barely audible above the din at Alltrista Corp.'s Zinc Products division.

The factory in this Tennessee farming community produces blank coins, which the U.S. Mint then stamps with Abraham Lincoln's face to make pennies.

What is chump change to some is big business for Alltrista, which makes all the pennies in the United States--some 13 billion this year alone. In 1999 the government ordered 30 percent more than the previous year.

"When the economy is good, people actually hoard a little more of their change," Alltrista President Albert H. Giles said. "When things get tight, they start digging in their penny jars and spending it."

Parts of the Northeast reported penny shortages early this year, and the shortfall made its way to the Southeast by summer. The Federal Reserve even cut back deliveries to some banks.

People who toss spare change into jars and piggy banks don't realize they are contributing to the problem.

Whatever the reason for the shortage, Alltrista is happy for the extra business.

"We love the penny," Giles said. "It is not circulated as widely as quarters, so we're doing whatever we can to see that the utilization of the penny increases."

So is Americans for Common Cents, a group of business and charitable organizations fighting to keep the penny in circulation. The group formed in 1990 after Congress started studying whether to eliminate the coin.

Nearly 75 percent of people polled by the group in April favored keeping the penny; previous polls produced similar findings.

Most Americans fear businesses will round up prices if the nickel becomes the lowest denomination, spokesman Mark Weller said.

"At least in the next three to five years, we feel the penny will be retained," he said.

That's good news for Indianapolis-based Alltrista. The metal and plastics maker's products are used for roofing materials, bridge components and other products, but the penny put Alltrista on the map.

The process starts with silvery bars of zinc, which are melted and pressed into sheets that stretch between heavy rollers. When the sheets reach the proper thickness, a machine stamps out the coins--some 22,000 per minute.

Another machine puts rims around the pennies, which are then placed in barrels and a thin coat of copper is applied. The shiny blank coins are then ready for shipment to the U.S. Mint in Denver or Philadelphia, where they are stamped.

Pennies were made of solid copper until the early 1980s, when the mint said the cost of making them exceeded their value. A copper-coated zinc penny costs about seven-tenths of a cent to make.

Alltrista also makes Canada's pennies and coins for Bermuda, Fiji, Panama and Lebanon. The company had 1998 sales of $244 million; the zinc division's sales range from $50 million to $100 million.

CAPTION: Carla Riggs checks blank coins pouring out of a dryer at Alltrista's Greeneville, Tenn., plant.