A friction stir system for processing at least a first workpiece includes a spindle actuator coupled to a rotary tool comprising a rotating member for contacting and processing the first workpiece. A detection system is provided for obtaining information related to a lateral alignment of the rotating member. The detection system comprises at least one sensor for measuring a force experienced by the rotary tool or a parameter related to the force experienced by the rotary tool during processing, wherein the sensor provides sensor signals. A signal processing system is coupled to receive and analyze the sensor signals and determine a lateral alignment of the rotating member relative to a selected lateral position, a selected path, or a direction to decrease a lateral distance relative to the selected lateral position or selected path. In one embodiment, the friction stir system can be embodied as a closed loop tracking system, such as a robot-based tracked friction stir welding (FSW) or friction stir processing (FSP) system.